The greatest irony about the progressive rock era’s biggest and most legendary bands is that, by the time the ’80s arrived, they had more or less transformed into mainstream rock acts. This isn’t wholly a bad thing—”Owner of a Lonely Heart” remains one of Yes’ best songs, ditto for Genesis’ “That’s All.” (The same can’t necessarily be said for “I Can’t Dance,” unfortunately.) While this trend certainly doesn’t hold for every prog-rock band—Dream Theater hasn’t tapered their technical ambition, as far as I know—few art rockers have managed to take a turn for the accessible without sacrificing their progressive elements.
For Atlanta, Ga.-based metal icons Mastodon, not a prog-rock band per se, the paths toward accessibility and compositional ambition have run parallel since their sludgy debut Remission. Complex thematic elements and bigger melodies emerged on 2004’s Leviathan, tighter technical elements and a broader musical palette made 2006’s Blood Mountain an epic masterpiece, and on Crack the Skye, the group’s latest opus, lengthier tracks, cleaner singing and soaring theatrics combine to make it the group’s most ambitious record to date. Even Mastodon’s album titles have suggested a build of sorts, from the sea, to the top of a mountain peak, to the sky(e)!
With intricate conceptual themes of Rasputin and Tsarist Russia interwoven throughout its seven tracks, Crack the Skye is an enormous record, expansive in sound and stylistically all over the map. Some have already dubbed this Mastodon’s “classic rock” record, thanks in large part to its prominent, cleanly sung vocal lines and minimized screaming. That’s not too far from the truth, namely on the album’s first single “Divinations,” which kicks off with a Southern hard rock boogie riff. Interestingly enough, a fair amount of screams are to be heard in this track, though during its soaring chorus, those effects-laden croons take over. It’s the catchiest the band has ever sounded, yet it’s classic Mastodon at their finest.
The largest focal points on Crack the Skye are its pair of monstrous, nine-plus minute tracks, each one closing out one of the album’s halves. Album centerpiece “The Czar” is a soaring revelation, broken into four distinct but interlocking parts. It begins with an eerie dirge-like pace, with the ominous warning, “don’t stay/ run away.” From there, Mastodon breaks into a heroic three minutes of soaring chug, only to descend into a harrowing, funereal movement, ultimately closing with a reprisal of the intro. The closing, 13-minute “The Last Baron,” meanwhile, rockets through numerous movements on its own, opening up with a surprisingly catchy progression before erupting into various sessions of guitar heroics, muscular riff rumbles and, in its greatest section, a burly rock groove near the 9-minute mark.
Even with two behemoths making up almost half the album, Crack the Skye‘s more digestible moments are sufficiently epic on their own, and for that matter still maintain a brawny metal sound. “Oblivion” builds momentum from its haunting intro into a chorus that’s nearly as memorable as the perfect melodies in “Divinations.” “Quintessence” is a bit closer to the Mastodon of old, though its grungy opening chords are oddly reminiscent of Alice in Chains (as are the Layne Staley-like vocals). Nonetheless, that dissipates quickly, as the group ushers in a complex riff structure, and later on, a dreamy Moog-driven interlude. And the title track, with its ambient touches in its introduction and ascendant chorus, still manages to descend into the deepest sludge on Crack the Skye.
For Mastodon, progression is not a genre, it’s a proven successful operating method. After three outstanding albums of ass-kicking metal, Mastodon has taken numerous steps forward and skyward on Crack the Skye, simultaneously issuing their most melodic and most artfully ambitious work to date. Where they go from here is anyone’s guess, but this is one peak that will be hard to top.
Baroness – The Red Album
Isis – Panopticon
Neurosis – Given to the Rising
Video: Mastodon – “Divinations”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.