Monday, 30 March 2009

Through time, space and Tsarist Russia: Mastodon's Crack the Skye

“It’s about a crippled young man who experiments with astral travel. He goes up into outer space, goes too close to the sun, gets his golden umbilical cord burned off, flies into a wormhole, is thrust into the spirit realm, has conversations with spirits about the fact that he’s not really dead, and they decide to help him. They put him into a divination that’s being performed by an early-20th-century Russian Orthodox sect called the Klisti, which Rasputin is part of.

Knowing Rasputin is about to be murdered, they put the young boy’s spirit inside of Rasputin. Rasputin goes to usurp the throne of the Czar and is murdered by the Yusupovs, and the boy and Rasputin fly out of Rasputin’s body up through the crack in the sky and head back. Rasputin gets him safely back into his body.

That’s the basic story… but it’s all metaphors for personal shit.”

– Brann Dailor

As the above quote might suggest, there is a certain cinematic quality to Mastodon’s music. As a gift to those who pre-ordered new album Crack the Skye from iTunes, the band made available each track as an instrumental, or as what they describe as a ‘score’. In fact, it seems that Mastodon’s heavily conceptualised brand of rock can no longer be contained by music alone, with the band planning to release a 50 minute film as an accompaniment to their latest opus. With Brann Dailor’s summary of Crack the Skye’s bizarre concept fresh in mind, such an offering would surely be welcomed by all.

Mastodon’s first album proper was 2002’s Remission which, through a staggering display of aggression and raw power, represented the ‘fire’ element in what would be their first of a four-part series. 2004’s Leviathan showcased the true scope of the bands conceptuality by taking the narrative of Melville’s Moby Dick as its theme, thus representing ‘water’ in the band’s grand scheme. Garnering almost unanimous critical acclaim, the album went on to be voted the 3rd best metal album of the last 20 years by leading publication Metal Hammer. It also proved to be the band’s last release for their highly respected, albeit independent and therefore constraining, label Relapse Records before they signed with Warner Bros. 2006’s Blood Mountain (representing the ‘earth’ element), the band’s highly anticipated major label debut truly propelled the band into the upper echelon’s of the hard rock scene with lead single Colony of Birchmen earning them a Grammy nomination. Again, the band enjoyed almost unprecedented critical acclaim and by the time the Blood Mountain world tour had wound down Mastodon sat comfortably on throne as metal’s new champions. Although at this point everyone knew which element would follow to complete the cycle, few could have guessed the impact that the concept of ‘air’ would have on the band’s sound. On Crack the Skye, Mastodon have all but completely transformed themselves into one of the finest musical acts on the planet.

Mastodon’s real triumph as a band has always been their ability to utilise their talent as songwriters to convey a theme or concept. Each album post-Remission tells a story from start to finish, both lyrically and musically. Despite the lyrical cohesion of each collection of songs, the crux of each album’s narrative doesn’t rely solely on what is being said; the music plays an equal, if not bigger, role in telling a story. For instance, the Moby Dick inspired lyrics on Leviathan are mirrored by fluid guitar work and wonderfully absurd nuance (see Megalodon’s seat shanty segue). The album consistent evokes the feeling of being lost at sea, far from safety from its blistering exposition to the final 14 minute marathon of Heart’s Alive. Blood Mountain, too, is a unified work of speculative fiction as Troy Sanders explains; “It’s about climbing up a mountain and the different things that can happen to you when you’re stranded on a mountain, in the woods, and you’re lost. You’re starving, hallucinating, running into strange creatures. You’re being hunted. It’s about that whole struggle.” The album’s psychadelic lyrical content is matched with earthy guitar tones, churning riffs and an emphasis on rythym.

Having adapted possibly the greatest seafaring work of fiction for Leviathan and created an entire world for Blood Mountain, Mastodon will have been well aware during the writing process for Crack the Skye that their tendency to better themselves demanded of them nothing short of the delivery of a masterpiece; anything less would sit uncomfortably with their previous work. Put simply: they deliver, making it seem as effortless as it would be had there been no pressure on them whatsoever. What the band offer this time around is nothing short of a complete reinvention of themselves, and whereas die-hard Remission lovers may be left reeling by the circumvention of breakneck pace, cartilage wearing drum fills and blistering rage, true Mastodon fans will recognise the sheer magnitude and importance of what is likely to become one of metal’s all time great albums.

Crack the Skye introduces the band as a different beast altogether; this is a Mastodon matured, wiser and, frankly, better than before. And as hard as that is to believe, repeat listens (or, if you close your eyes, viewings) of their new offering will convince you that even if you don’t quite get it at first, you are witnessing something special. At face value the album is slower than almost all of the band’s previous material; Brann takes a step back from his trademark style of busy, jazz infused beats punctuated by wandering drum kills, instead ‘locking into a groove’ as he puts it, perhaps a consequence of his playing to a click track for the first time on a Mastodon album. More likely is that his alteration of style is dictated by the style of the songs themselves; he merely plays what is required of him although that is not to say that he doesn’t stand out as the remarkable drummer that Remission, Leviathan and Blood Mountain have shown him to be. In fact, it is fair to say that the album doesn’t really get going until he does; his perfectly measured cascading drum fills introducing album opener Oblivion before giving way to a time signature change that instantly banishes any fear of the band having strayed from their progressive roots. Some haunting vocals (courtesy of Brann himself) and a masterful guitar solo round off the band’s statement of intent, giving way to the album’s obvious choice for lead single; Divinations. Clocking in at 3 and a half minutes and the album’s shortest song by some distance, the up tempo track is somewhat of a curveball when heard in isolation; it is as different from the rest of the material on display as Crack the Skye is from Mastodon’s previous material, but such are the demands of major label politics.

So just how does Crack the Skye conspire to convey it’s extraordinary story musically? Detractors will point out that the album is a lot more polished than its predecessors and use this to fuel the argument that it isn’t really metal at all. They might be right. Crack the Skye doesn’t appear at all concerned with being ‘metal’ and as a result stands out as the band’s most unified and complete offering. Brendan O’Brien’s production allows the songs to realise their ethereal intentions, born of the band’s decision to leave behind their more complicated guitar work in favour of riffs that, at times, approach ambience. Quintessence is a perfect example; a song that soars into space with its airy guitars and spiralling synth licks whilst losing none of its power. Mastodon have never sounded so uplifting, Sanders’ vocals ascending above the rich, layered tapestry of music that his band creates. The Czar, a ten minute, four part piece of pure prog-rock indulgence enters as a slow burner, guided by dreamy synth and guitar before exploding into a groovy urgency. As with all of the band’s previous material, if you stick with it you will be richly rewarded for your patience – a transcendent acoustic break gives way to a wonderfully lush classic rock section led by a melody reminiscent of Ozzy Osbourne. Brendt Hinds’ mesmerising guitar solo leads the song full circle for its denouement and you realise that whilst you have been floating around in space you have lost ten minutes. Not that you’ll mind.

As un-Mastodon as you may consider it to be, the production is flawless and may prove to be one of the factors that will see Crack the Skye go down in history as one of those timeless albums that sound as fresh as the day they were made 20 years after their release date. In 2006, the band contributed to Kerrang!’s Remastered, a 20th anniversary tribute to Metallica’s seminal Master of Puppets, covering the instrumental track Orion to a degree of perfection that the original writers of the song must have been proud of. Paying homage to one of the founders of modern heavy music must have been an honour at the time, as would be the opportunity to join them on a 2009 European tour had Crack the Skye not just been released. But the fact is that Crack the Skye may just be the Master of Puppets of generation now; the album that goes on to serve as a benchmark for rock music for the foreseeable future. Crack the Skye will go on to top album of the year lists around the globe, but something more important is harboured within the 7 tracks and 50 minutes of this record, something that escapes the immediacy of as many listens that can be crammed into even a whole year.

As with Master of Puppets, only time will truly reveal its greatness. I think I know how important this record is, but I know that time will prove me wrong because in the future I would not be surprised if bands are lining up to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Crack the Skye.

Watch Mastodon play Oblivion live here.
Listen to them talk about Crack the Skye here.

No comments:

Post a Comment