From the opening guitars and drummer Brann Dailor’s seize of the first verse on “Oblivion,” it’s undeniable that Mastodon’s objective on Crack the Skye was to transport the listener to an ethereal universe, far beyond the hellfire and brimstone of Remission, way past the treacherous waters of Leviathan, and hundreds of miles over the inescapable and brooding hills of Blood Mountain. You know what else is undeniable? I feel high listening to this record.
Before transcribing my heavy-metal thesis, I must’ve conducted twenty-three listens (on separate occasions, of course) to Crack the Skye, the Atlanta, Georgia quartet’s fifth album and most accomplished work to date. Prior to diving into individual songs, it’s impossible to elude the story behind the making of this record. First, there was the decision of having producing juggernaut Brendan O’ Brien (Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam) at the helm. Then, there was guitarist Brent Hinds inebriated altercation with System of a Down’s Shavo Odadjian and his entourage outside the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards that left Hinds with severe brain hemorrhaging. And last but not least, we can’t ignore Dailor’s explanation of the concept of Skye: visions of astral travel, wormholes, out-of-body experiences, Rasputin, and a tribute to the drummer’s late sister who committed suicide when she was 14-years old whose name happened to be Skye. The expectations were of Thor-like proportions.
Crack the Skye is a seven-song, fifty-minute classic rock triumph. This is the album headphones were made for. I wish I could gun it to 88 in Doc Brown’s time-traveling DeLorean to 1976 and experience it with Mitch Kramer in the final scene of Dazed and Confused. Trust me, it beats the hell out of Foghat’s “Slow Ride.” First single “Divinations” is a brutal two-guitar assault for the ages. The second Hinds and Bill Kelliher’s menacing “surf rock” guitars explode out of the speakers, you’re guaranteed to wipeout like Bohdi in Point Break. Excuse my Patrick Swayze reference, I saw the movie on TNT the other night and it still cooks. The title track on this record features organ and mellotron courtesy of Rich Morris and guest vocals from Scott Kelly (Neurosis). You may remember him from the “Crystal Skull” of Blood Mountain. It’s refreshing to hear his blood-curdling screech during the verses adding a fierce intensity leading up to the choruses sung by Hinds and Troy Sanders. Add robot vocal effects ala STYX’s “Mr. Roboto” on crack over eerie keys and you have yourself a thrilling combination. Astonishingly, Skye showcases Hinds and Sanders powerful vocals and manages to prove these Southern boys can write a kick-ass melody and belt the hell out of it. Occasionally, Hinds’ vocals sound jarringly similar to a certain bat-eating, Texas-landmark-pissing front man, but aren’t distracting enough to take away from the strength of these songs.
“The Czar” and “The Last Baron” are Skye’s centerpieces. Clocking in at 10:54 & 13:00 respectively, Mastodon taunts the prog-metal monster by shifting from visceral melodies to Dailor’s spacey grooves, and manages to keep our minds fully engaged. “The Czar” is a modern-prog classic, divided into four movements: I.) Usurper, II.) Escape, III.) Martyr, & IV.) Spiral. These movements showcase the band’s most intricate and complex musical arrangements to date. “The Last Baron” is no exception. It’s challenging but most importantly, wildly engrossing. By the six-minute mark, your head and ears should simultaneously combust with the band’s jazz-fusion freak-out that sounds like Pat Metheny just shook hands with Robert Fripp of King Crimson and bought him a Pabst Blue Ribbon. “21st Century Schizoid Man” be damned!
Mastodon have publicly stated they wanted to craft a record that was destined for “shelf life,” an album you can listen to twenty years from now and say, “Shit, that was great.” Of course, that remains to be seen. But one thing is certain; Crack the Skye stands the test of time. While some bands grow weary of inspiration, Mastodon continues to grow ambitious with every record and it’s never been more evident now. Put your headphones on.
Download: Mastodon – Divinations [MP3]