Mastodon-Crack the Skye

Mastodon-Crack the Skye
2009; Reprise; Atlanta, Georgia
If you listen to Mastodon's drummer, Brann Dailor, he will tell you that this is what their new album, Crack the Skye, is about:

"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 real, 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."

You know what? I went into this album not even knowing there WAS a story, so you can feel free to safely ignore this crackpot's ideas about his music, as long as his music is still good. And it is.

Progressive metal has been known for some time as the worst possible outcome of the genres it combines. It's snooty while being base, technically advanced without the slightest hint of dynamism, and always contains high-concept ideas with lyrics that wouldn't know depth or profundity if it slapped them right in the dick. If anything was going to pull this sad, sorry genre out of the mud, it wasn't going to be Dream Theater, it wasn't going to be Symphony-X and it sure as hell was not going to be the fucking Goddamn Flower Kings.

And I guess Mastodon felt that, as long as they were the only listenable band in modern American metal already, they might as well scoop up the pieces of prog metal and build it into something that a normal person could conceivably get into. I think they might have succeeded.

To be fair, this trend of making progressive metal not completely embarrassing didn't start with Mastodon-Tool has been doing their damndest for over a decade, and Cynic recently released the sublime Traced in Air, which I would say was far and away the best album of 2008. Like the aforementioned album, what Crack the Skye does is strip away all the masturbatory guitar solos and all the strained lyrics and replace them with warped, psychadelic imagery and pure, thundering musicianship.

Is this really an album about a cripple possessing Rasputin or whatever? Maybe-I don't know and I don't care. I know that the lyrics come off as being completely open to interpretation. I know that the riffs are electric, the drums are heavy and the vocals are piercing. I know that the subtle moments make the dashes of fury all the more powerful and I know that "The Last Baron" is one of my favorite new songs in some time.

I also know that it doesn't feel pretentious or snobby, and I know it feels like it doesn't belong to an exclusive club that only music school graduates are allowed to enter. It feels like it has something to say, even if what it's saying isn't entirely straightforward, and it wants as many people as possible to hear it. That kind of sincerity comes along rarely in modern music and almost never in prog.

And yes, this album does have problems. A few of the songs get to sounding awfully similar after a while and on "Ghost of Karelia" they actually re-use a guitar riff from an earlier album, which is a level of laziness that I'm not positive I'm comfortable with. Yeah, the idea behind the whole thing, though easily ignorable, is irredeemably goofy and that cover art looks like something you'd see painted on the side of a van.

But I think if you like metal already-or if you're just looking for something new-you really don't have anything to lose with Crack the Skye. It manages to combine classic rock fundamentals, progressive musicianship, good old fashioned heavy metal and kaleidoscopic ideas and sounds in a way I've never quite seen before. It's definitely different, and it's definitely something metal bands are going to be trying to imitate for years to come. There's a thoughtful, intelligent musical revolution coming down the road, and it's being birthed out of the corpse of progressive heavy metal. Who knew?

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