How Crack the Skye cracked Mastodon’s prog-metal code
Sometimes canonical bands sneak up on us. For all the deserved acclaim Phil Elverum, John Darnielle and Robert Pollard have received, it took a number of years and lots of records before they had that shine to them that said they were going to last and, more importantly, going to matter for a long time. Other times, it’s like Van Halen or Led Zeppelin, and a single strum of a well-tuned and well-effected electric guitar announces the coming king.
Mastodon’s an interesting case. They hit somewhere in the middle, when the critical acclaim of Remission tumbled headlong into the wide metal embrace of Leviathan (which felt so much like salvation at the time) to the major label push of Blood Mountain. By Crack the Skye, the band’s legacy was sealed; even if they were to tank their career with a set of misguided experiments and derailed all goodwill, those four records seemed to indicate they would stand the test of time and would join other brilliant, holy four-record streaks in rock as canonical to the enterprise. Most bands never get that nod, and even the ones that do sometimes have a spottier time, where groups such as Badfinger, Raspberries and Cheap Trick struggle sometimes to have a record you can suggest to a newcomer top to bottom, even if their overall esteem is unimpeachable in the long halls of rock.
Crack the Skye turns 10 this year. No doubt there are already anniversary articles published by the time this goes up; beyond a doubt, more will be coming. I’m not so interested in a standard hagiography for the record. Not as a slight to the record, which while not flawless is certainly a necessary documentary of guitar music, rock, prog and metal. But because this anniversary provides a brief window where the time between Crack The Skye’s release and now is roughly the same as the record from the group’s founding. We are briefly privileged with equal windows of time of their careers both before and after Crack the Skye and the unique perspectives that can come from this.
It’s most interesting to view first the period after Crack the Skye. While on paper, this type of article would work best with some kind of thorough write-up of the record in question, going track by track and combing its influences, the curation and creation of those songs, it is recent enough in cultural memory that this feels gratuitous. It is not some long-forgotten gem or record beloved by collectors like those two Jellyfish records and the solo work that came after. And with the dawn of the era of streaming coming hot off the heels of the record, Spotify and streaming in general being juggernauts as they are, it likewise feels additionally silly to discuss Crack the Skye like you don’t know what it is or couldn’t at least find out easily already.
It feels more fruitful, then, to use Crack the Skye as a lens to view the second half of their career. The albums from The Hunter on have a diminished reputation, not only compared to their more illustrious predecessor but to the works that precede them. It’s worth addressing this point more directly, and I don’t think anyone could argue that it’s not at least somewhat warranted. But this long shadow often obscures what the records are themselves, seemingly rendering people unable to approach the songs with a fresh perspective as if they had been released by a different band name.
The first release following Crack the Skye was, in a fit of the divine comedy of the course of the world and its history, the instrumental EP Revenge Gets Ugly, soundtrack to the Jonah Hex film. At the time, what marginal attention the EP received pointed to it as a sonic departure for the group. Gone were the flighty psychedelic concepts of their own and with them the increasingly complex vocal interplay, replaced with programmatic instrumental prog more explicitly scoring a film, more like a studio tapping a hot property for quick cred than something of artistic continuity. It’s easier to see now, a bit under a decade on, that the EP replicates an internal characteristic of Mastodon overlooked among their more catching qualities of heaviness and progressive/technical flair: playfulness.
The degree to which playfulness and childlike creative joy gets omitted from the discussion when evaluating the band’s work is shocking. It is this joy that deflates any sense of pretension from their psychedelic prog rock opus, daring as their progenitors in the ’70s did to strike out with equal parts whimsy and proficiency. Neither the prog heroes Mastodon so clearly worship nor the band themselves (or, in truth, most prog groups) approach their music with the intent of thumbing their noses at the masses while sneering from their high chair; it is a purer thing, playing a game of musical “what if?” with gradually increasing technical ability honed to make those idle thoughts a reality. This was what pushed the band to eventually develop something this complex. On Revenge Gets Ugly, it merely gets unspooled, songs no longer requiring a vocal component and the sonic palette widening.
The importance of indulging the playful side of the band is relevant when considering The Hunter, their most divisive record. There was even a sense, following their immaculate first four, that this was the equivalent of their black album, mirroring Metallica’s likewise progressive ascent into metal canonicity followed by a rapid devolution. This, however, sells short the strengths of the record and, more importantly, how closely it ties to their lineage. For instance, the notion of its flippancy in the face of the serious pursuits of previous records ignores tales of talking skulls buried in secret mountain caves and Rasputin helping a paraplegic astral traveler to battle Satan for the soul of his sister.
The level of fantasy in Mastodon’s work, while always delivered straight-faced, is absurd and intentionally so; like noted influence Genesis with their landmark concept record The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway or similarly the full-album concept songs “Thick as a Brick” or “A Passion’s Play” by Jethro Tull, the goal is not to avoid the inherent silliness of that level of grandiosity and phantasia but to embrace it. The Hunter was not some ideological betrayal of the group but instead merely a decentering, one that allowed them to play more freely with whatever idea may come.
It was this decentering of strict narrative that allowed them to isolate the prog and hard rock elements that comprised so much of Crack the Skye’s sound compared to the popular image of Mastodon as an ultra-heavy band and instead focus on inventive rock playing. There are certain critical masterworks on the album build off of this idea, such as “Black Tongue,” “Blasteroids” and “Dry Bone Valley,” that validate the enterprise. If circumstances of birth were different we may have seen a different and more focused record, and likely those tighter and more successful songs would have been recontextualized into a stronger whole, but typecasting the record as a sell-out hollow shell ignores the moment-to-moment heavy prog frenzy of the album, which in many ways is more successful than the somewhat rambling closing track of Crack the Skye, “The Last Baron,” which is filled with brilliant ideas that feel like they would have been better saved for on-stage elaboration rather than the recorded version.
Once More ‘Round The Sun, Mastodon’s next record, fared better critically than its predecessor, and for good reason. It largely was a retread of the same general conceits, that being a loose tongue-in-cheek playfulness to songwriting and imagery, but managed to communicate its looseness better. It’s a record that, had any other band released it, would have seen more praise; tracks like “Asleep in the Deep”, “Diamond In The Witch House” and “Ember City” are among the best the band have ever written, combining a sonically rich progressive soundscape and structuring with direct hard rock and heavy metal riffs, skewing closer to the anthemic ends of Ozzy Osbourne or a group like King Diamond rather than sludge metal as associated with the group.
In many ways, this sonic blend makes it more a direct follow-up to Crack the Skye than its predecessor. One confoundingly overlooked element of Crack the Skye is in the name of the record itself, a nod to the band Crack the Sky who played a more hard rock-oriented breed of Yes-style filigreed progressive rock. Mastodon, it seemed, tried their best to nod to their broader influences beyond heavy metal, evoking Thin Lizzy, ZZ Top, and a number of prog groups. Their collaboration with punk group The Coathangers on “Aunt Lisa” hints toward this broader desire to draw from the wildness of rock music rather than any particular sector within it, with heavy metal, punk and, of course, prog being more outre and immediate forms of that wildness but more traditional hard rock still being well-within the bounds of acceptability for the group.
If Crack the Skye was the apex of their concept-driven work, then Once More ‘Round The Sun is the distillation and crystallization of their inner songwriting impulses. Each song is crenelated with the kinds of fine-print sonic touches that defined the more progressive bent of Crack the Skye while each track had its own divergent identity, spanning from direct and anthemic hard rock in “The Motherload” to moody progressive epics in “Chimes at Midnight.” The album fits snugly against Skye, emulating its spirit in each of its constituent tracks, a fact shown in companion EP Cold Dark Place (released three years later) composed largely of tracks from sessions for Once More ‘Round The Sun. More, the combined presence of that EP and LP together allowed audiences and critics to be receptive to the notion that Crack the Skye acts as a point of aesthetic rebirth and genesis for the group and is directly indebted to that record, not unlike Rush following Moving Pictures or Pantera with Cowboys From Hell, and that faulting the group for not being as directly heavy or aggressive as the works preceding Crack the Skye was errant.
These notions were validated on Emperor of Sand, which was functionally an aesthetic duplicate of its esteemed predecessor but with the lessons learned on the more rock-oriented records that followed it. This was deliberate; it featured a return not only to grandiloquent overarching concept work but also producer Brendan O’Brien, whom they worked with on Crack the Skye and whose primary contribution was to take the heavy rock lean of Blood Mountain and give it its final push and polish. If it reads as their greatest record post-Skye, it’s because it embraces the elements that comprised not only that second era of the group but also Crack the Skye most unabashedly.
Crack the Skye is the center in two ways beyond this ontological one. Most obviously, it bisects their career, holding roughly the same amount of time after the record as before, making it chronologically their center. Second, roughly as obvious, it is their fourth LP of seven so far, with three on either side. This raises the question of whether the insights of one side of this bisection can be applied to the other or if they are two distinct animals. I am of the persuasion that the halves of the band are not nearly as separated as we sometimes perceive them; we operate, sometimes, on the notion that the heaviness of the former eclipses the latter to a severity that renders their post-Crack the Skye material inferior to that which came before.
But Blood Mountain, the album that immediately precedes Crack the Skye, is roughly as sonically accessible as The Hunter. Already we see the usage of Brann Dailor for clean traditional heavy metal vocals and a larger emphasis on the clean vocals of Brent Hinds, as well as comparatively radio-friendly song structures. It’s where the band first embraced the power of an anthemic heavy rock chorus, already shying away from metal that would be heavier than, say, Led Zeppelin or Rainbow at their peak. Much of the album, masterpiece of contemporary rock and metal that it is, is a relatively approachable one and saw the greatest growth in their fanbase from record to record, what with inclusion on games like Guitar Hero III and, at last, a sustained terrestrial rock radio presence with newly-found major label backing.
Yet we don’t see comparative hit pieces or hot takes against Blood Mountain; songs like “The Wolf Is Loose,” “Siberian Divide” and “Circle of Cysquatch” are accepted into the canon rightfully and readily despite the absurdist Lamb Lies Down On Broadway-style conceptual twists and silly song title affectations making it not much different from The Hunter. Much of its material ranks as less heavy than that on Once More ‘Round The Sun or the comparative neutron star of Emperor of Sand. We see within it the motive that would lead to directly to Crack the Skye. It was not accessibility as a motive but clarity, to allow some of the more deft and gargantuan sonic ideas of the band to be legible in a manner that a thick sludgy coat of distortion simply couldn’t offer.
Which extends yet further backward into Leviathan, rightly considered the greatest (or at least most important) heavy metal release of the millennium so far. That record too showed, in comparison to the mental image of the group as hoary and effusive in distortion and grit, a clean and precisely produced record. Tracks like “Blood and Thunder” may roar, but “I Am Ahab,” “Island,” “Iron Tusk” and more sing with clarity. This also strikes at what is compelling about the band, a facet which has remained with the group from the beginning and has yet to dissipate; they write progressive and technical passages that are also of unparalleled beauty, relying less on primal heaviness than on smart arranging and keen melodic and harmonic sensibilities. Crack the Skye had moments of heaviness but Mastodon had seemingly already evolved into a much broader epic heavy metal band than an extreme metal group; using Crack the Skye as our lens, we can see they already were this band on Leviathan. “Hearts Alive”, the masterwork of the record, soars and swims not in bestial sludge/thrash fury but in a proggy heavy metal fashion, feeling more like Big Business after a Genesis marathon than Napalm Death on quaaludes.
Crack the Skye and all that came after offers a stranger lens on Remission and Lifesblood, their debut EP since re-released as Call of the Mastodon. Those works are, admittedly, more hoary and explicitly heavy than much of the later work, offering more in the way of explicit blast beats and continuous extreme vocals. But they offer more moments of clarity, anthemic hooks and the kinds of meticulous and gorgeous work the band would master on Crack the Skye and truck in primarily in the records that followed. With the lens of the body of their work, these early moments of extreme aggression which seem to have so typified the band for a portion of its fanbase feel more clearly now remnants of Brann and Bill’s time in math-metal grind outfits Lethargy and Today is the Day. Heaviness is certainly a part of the band’s DNA; they did meet at a High On Fire show, after all. But just as High On Fire revealed more and more globe-conquering Zeppelin-esque tendencies as the band’s work developed, so too did Mastodon.
Crack the Skye in this sense should not merely be memorialized for its own monumental achievements as a record. Those plaudits are well-earned but have been and will continue to be chronicled elsewhere. Very rarely does a record enter the canon of Great Rock/Metal Records, but that one did almost instantly in a manner few bands outside of bands like Metallica or Gojira have been able to measure up against. But the record deserves as well a memorial of how it is revelatory to the overall project of the band from its very inception, how it calcified an inner Mastodon-ness that defines not only itself but also all of the work that came before and after it. The fanbase of Mastodon is divided, with some refusing work that follows Crack the Skye, but to do so feels a disservice to its legacy and a way of ignoring that it showed what the band always was and was always destined to be: one of the greatest proggy hard rock and heavy metal bands of all time. Mastodon sit next to Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Metallica as one of the most important heavy bands and Crack the Skye is a clear and direct vision of why, a clean image of the precise heart of the band.
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Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.