Written by: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer
In the pantheon of metal gods, Metallica would be Zeus, Slayer would be Hades, and Mastodon some sort of Hercules, walking the Earth and conquering new territories, while surely destined for placement on Mount Olympus.
Much like Metallica’s rise to glory, Mastodon’s also began with a relatively shaky first record, 2003’s Remission, which saw the band relying more on tired thrash and death metal tropes rather than forging ahead. But 2004’s Leviathan broke the mold, so to speak, with regard to what super-heavy speed and thrash metal could sound like. Songs like “Blood & Thunder,” and “Iron Tusk” put the rest of the metal world on notice that Mastodon is the new king of the heavy. But rather than rest of their success, with 2006’s Blood Mountain, Mastodon separated from the rest of the pack even further, marking Mastodon as the most important metal band making music today. Sure, the heaviest songs still filled out the album—opener “The Wolf Is Loose” springs to mind—but several less insane tracks also proved the band capable of a more classic metal sound. “Sleeping Giant,” in particular, marked a major departure from the band’s thrash and death metal roots.
In response to Mastodon’s music chops and obvious ambition, Metallica certainly proved why they’re still relevant, plucking the band from amongst the jam-packed underground metal ranks to serve as its opener on European tours. Playing alongside Metallica seems to have streamlined the band’s sound even more, filing off the rough edges of the more aggressive and confrontational songs like “Island” and “Aqua Dementia” and focusing Mastodon’s sound around more melodic work like “Colony of Birchmen” and “Hearts Alive.”
A similar European tour in support of Tool, another band that have put away their heavier, angrier early work in favor of more variety and melody, saw Mastodon playing to less heavy metal-oriented crowds. So, after conquering the metal world and gathering a devoted and obsessive following, Mastodon have released Crack the Skye, their most ambitious and accessible work to date.
Opening track “Oblivion” sets the tone of the record, replacing previous speed metal riffs with a slower, more methodical structure and—metal credibility be damned!—vocals that can actually be understood. The band still does not seem capable of matching Metallica’s lyrical abilities, but at least they’ve replaced previously dense and meaningless songs about Minotaurs and crystal skulls with some introspection. The song’s refrain, “now I’m lost in oblivion,” is short on profundity, but in context proves catchy as hell and is tailor made for the fickle and unadventurous Top 40 radio programmer.
First single “Divinations,” meanwhile, is a scorching beast reminiscent of “Blood & Thunder,” with sort of a hybrid sound between the band’s obvious Black Sabbath influences and heavier, faster hardcore metal. Once again, the catchy and meaningless refrain, “no escape, fighting spirits, no escape,” will enable the song to reach a more mainstream audience while retaining the band’s street credibility.
In fact, Crack the Skye is jam-packed with at least five songs that are ready to be converted into Gold’s Gym staples. “Quintessence” sounds like a heavier, more learned version of AC/DC or Van Halen at times, where the band wails off a repeated “let ‘em go!” before verging back into the kind of super-dense time and melody changes that make Mastodon the best in the business. “Ghost of Karelia” begins with a killer guitar riff overtop basic percussion (by Mastodon’s Brann Dailor’s fill-heavy standards, anyway). But the song quickly evolves into a relentless series of pummeling sections reminiscent of the heaviest, fastest Tool songs like “Hooker with a Penis” (real song title!, Ed.), or the seriously rocking parts of Metallica staples “Unforgiven” and “One.”
It’s the Metallica comparison that proves the most enduring. On a personnel level, the bands essentially break even. Kirk Hammett is regarded as one of the most influential and flat-out amazing lead guitarists in the business, but the twin towers of Mastodon’s Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher at times can match the sheer variety of the Hammett and Hetfield duo. Dailor is hands-down a more technical and gifted drummer than Lars Ulrich could ever dream of being. Troy Sanders, meanwhile, for all of his talents, can only hope to be compared to Metallica’s original and revolutionary bassist, Cliff Burton, or its current low-ender Robert Trujillo. The one Metallica element that Mastodon will always lack, however, is the powerful and heartbreaking vocal and lyrical work of Hetfield, who not only brought/brings the prototypical metal voice, but also combined his classic delivery with lyrical flourishes unmatched in the genre (witness “Fade to Black” off Ride the Lightning, or “Disposable Heroes” from Master of Puppets).
Still, despite the dissimilarities in both Mastodon’s and Metallica’s respective membership, Crack the Skye proves the band capable of inclusion among the finest practitioners of metal. The epic tracks “The Czar” and “The Last Baron” represent true departures from anything Mastodon has ever attempted, with both songs clocking in at well over the ten minute mark and containing numerous asides and evolutions.
Crack the Skye’s title track, however, might be the finest moment of the album. Beginning with a series of impassioned and grave vocals overtop tremendous riffage and throttling drums, “Crack the Skye” eventually gives way to the sort of climactic and cathartic moment that seals the deal, as robot voices and layered, “end scene” guitar ladders push the album off towards “The Last Baron” and the album’s ultimate conclusion.