It's been a long while since I've done any of these, and the pile of un-listened records rise higher and higher on my virtual (and physical) shelf. So for the next several days I'll take a deep dive and pick a bunch of both new and old records to post on the site. First up: one of my most-anticipated (for varying reasons) releases of 2009.
WHAT: Mastodon's Crack the Skye (2009)
WHY: Mastodon is the current "band to hate" according to the pundits on many a metal message board. Rallying on fan support for years based on massive slabs of sludge-metal like Remission and Leviathan, the tide began to turn after they signed to a major label (Warners) and released Blood Mountain, which eschewed their normal blood and thunder (heh*) for a more proggy, if equally inaccessible to the mainstream, sound. Critics loved it, and it made Rolling Stone's Top 50 Albums of 2006 (at #9, no less). When word got out they were going even more proggy, and utilizing decidedly non-metal producer Brenden O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen), the dander was, as they say, up.
OK...throw out your razor and grab your bong:
1. Oblivion - Odd time signatures, clean singing, solos that bend and sustain...right off the bat things feel more mature. It's hard to think that Mastodon are reaching for a wider fanbase with music that sounds like equal parts Rush, Black Sabbath and Isis, but I have to admit things feel a little dialed back in terms of the whole "in your face" vibe that earlier albums had. I like it, but was hoping for somethint a little more aggressive for an opening number.
2. Divinations- There's a definite Iron Maiden vibe in the guitars, and things are definitely picking up a lot. Still no roaring in the vocals, which for better or for worse shows how odd the lyrics are. "No Escape/Trapped in Time Space" is part of the chorus. These guys are monster musicians and not afraid to show it. This is a short charger (less than 4 minutes) that manages to stay in your head. Who said prog rock had to be so damn long?
3. Quintessence - Starts off similar to much of Blood Mountain, moving in and out of time signatures. The guitars really intertwine around the vocal delivery, which is more of the same monotone whine/roar. I'm still wishing for a little more up-front production, it may be that I'm listening on headphones and need to turn the volume up...it'll get the real test on the way home in the car. Spacey and psychedelic, although it kinda feels like it goes on a little long without a clear sense of direction.
4. The Czar (parts I-IV) - Ah, the big multi-part epic...of course it has to start with some 70s keyboard. This is Mastodon letting loose their inner geek, with lyrics about assassination, usurpation, illumination...basically a lot of -tions, all the while kicking the music to 11. At about the 4:00 marks things really start to groove, and Brann Dailor's drumming takes center stage. At 7+ minutes we go a little Judas Priest-y with the dual harmony guitars, a la "The Sentinel" before dive-bombing back to 1977 and Ritchie Blackmore's basement. The end of the song is pure Air Guitar Heaven.
5. Ghost of Karelia - Color me crazy, but so far I think I'm definitely getting into Crack the Skye more than Blood Mountain. Even though this is a bit of a come-down after the enormous stuffed pants of the previous track. I have absolutely no idea what this song is about. Each album is a concept whose plot intricacies would shame Tolkein. The drums and rhythms take a circular approach to the tune, always coming back upon itself, Orobous-style.
6. Crack the Skye - Is this the first time Mastodon have a title track? The song has a HUGE benefit in the guest vocals of Scott Kelly from Neurosis. Things get a little more spacey in this track, but this is the first big moment where everything seems to feel perfect in terms of the production, all echoes and layers that swarm over your in a tidal wave. Undulating...I think that's the word I'm looking for. Part of me can;t help but think of what this would sound like with Matt Bayles behind the boards, but all is forgiven when I hear Kelly's vocals rip through the track. Scott, I know not to expect a new Neurosis album any time soon, but when's that Shrinebuilder coming out?
7. The Baron - Apparently Mastodon are so bad they need TWO epic songs on Crack the Skye. "The Baron" clocks in at 13:00. The vocals get a little breathier, and the lumbering pace feels comfortable for a closing track. Reading the lyrics I have no idea why this song is called "The Baron" - the lyrics seem to be about being lost and asking for help, for guidance to be at rest. Oh...wait. He does say "baron" a couple of times. Doesn't really matter, as the music's the thing here, again all twisty and entwined within each other. Things actually get a little Zappa around the 6:00 mark before sailing back to firmer ground. Too bad...I was digging it while it lasted. Back to moving in my seat two minutes later. This is goooood.
BOTTOM LINE: B+ Give me "Divinations", "The Czar", "Crack the Skye" and "The Baron" and this would be an A-. The other songs are strong, but don't hold the same power and rock freakitude the others do. I seriously don't get the whole "hater" attitude toward Mastodon - can any metal band really sell out in a world intent on offering up nothing but Top 40 pop and electronic music? It's not like this is ever going to compete sales-wise with Lilly Allen or Coldplay.
Although wouldn't that be cool?
*See, 'cause "Blood and Thunder" was a song from their Leviathan album. Get it? I kill me!