CD Review of Crack the Skye by Mastodon
Mastodon: Crack the Skye
Recommended if you like
Tool, Baroness, early Pink Floyd
Reprise Records
Mastodon: Crack the Skye

Reviewed by Carlos Ramirez

rogressive metal bands have never had it easy. Bands like Dream Theater and Fates Warning have long been treated as the red-headed stepchildren of the metal world, and not only has the mainstream press largely ignored the acts in the genre, even other bands in the heavy metal community continuously have taken cheap shots throughout the years. But just as things started to get stale in the early ‘00s, metal got a much-needed jolt of vitality from a pack of prog-metal hopefuls: Bands like Baroness, Isis, and Pelican not only managed to get themselves on the covers of music magazines, they did it without bending to convention.

That’s where Mastodon comes into the picture. Arguably the highest-profile and most commercially successful of these groups, the Atlanta outfit snagged a deal with the folks at Reprise after two albums on a metal indie. Crack the Skye is their second effort for the legendary label, and it’s absolutely a stunner.

The first thing Mastodon did right was hire Brendan O’Brien (Bruce Springsteen, Stone Temple Pilots) to produce the sessions. Where most metal producers would have focused on the crunchier aspects of the band’s sound, O’Brien hones in on the nuances and atmospherics of the material. The guitars do carry punch and thickness in their tones, but there\'s a sharp clarity to them that cuts through despite all of the thickness in the audio mix. Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds tear off one swirly guitar passage after the other while Brann Dailor’s breakneck drumming shadows their every turn. The vertigo-inducing intro on "Divinations" will be a bastard to pull off in a live setting – but then again, this is Mastodon we’re talking about.

Whether it’s O’Brien’s classic-rock songwriting influence in the studio or not, the material on Crack the Skye is teeming with the biggest hooks in the band’s repertoire. But this is progressive metal, after all, so even though songs like "Ghost of Karelia" get stamped onto your brain after a couple of listens, that doesn’t mean they’re conventional by any definition of the word. Take "Oblivion," for example: with its expansive, layered arrangement and shifting time signatures, the track doesn’t have a hope in hell of making its way onto radio, but bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders’ Osbourne-esque vocal lines still pack lots of melody.

What prog record would be complete without an epic track? "The Last Baron" fits more into its 13 minutes than most bands do in a complete album. Every shade of Mastodon’s stylistic approach is explored in the song, but they do it with such controlled ease that you lose yourself in the listening experience. There’s even one section where the band slows things down to a menacing stomp, reminding us that they can throw down the gauntlet as hard as any of the best metal acts out there right now.

In the ‘70s spirit of the progressive bands that have helped inform their panoramic sound, Mastodon show that they know the importance of album packaging. Albums that sound this massive deserve the arresting artwork and imagery to complete the experience. Working with long-time artist Paul Romano, the band has put together an art package worthy of the music it’s representing. Mark our words, Crack the Skye’s visual layout will be nominated for a Grammy award – and, more importantly, so will its music.

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