The evolution of Mastodon has been an odd and winding thing of beauty. Since the Atlanta band started in 1999, they’ve released four albums of uncompromising heavy metal, been heralded as the place where “Rush meets Metallica,” and, miraculously, only got weirder after signing to a major label.
The evolution of Mastodon has been an odd and winding thing of beauty.
Since the Atlanta band started in 1999, they’ve released four albums of uncompromising heavy metal, been heralded as the place where “Rush meets Metallica,” and, miraculously, only got weirder after signing to a major label. For proof, one needs only to examine their newest album, Crack the Skye, which the band will be playing in its entirety at their show tonight.
The record opens up with “Oblivion,” which in the course of six minutes finds a head-banging dirge, a catchy rock chorus and proggy solos. The track also amply showcases the newest iteration of Mastodon’s vocals: clean, somewhat nasally singing from three different people, including drummer Brann Dailor.
Back in the days when the band released throaty bellows, they all sounded basically the same. Which was fine. But now, there are three distinct voices creating a weird in-and-out effect that, at least structurally, kind of reminds me of a hip-hop group. They switch off verses and share duties on the chorus. This sound was hinted at on their last album, Blood Mountain, but is only fully realized here.
Also introduced in the first track are the conceptual themes, which in true Mastodonian fashion are almost completely inscrutable.
Here’s what Dailor told Billboard about Crack the Skye‘s conceptual bent:
“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 realm, 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.”
Huh? I guess that’s what the lyrics could be about, though they read like the stream-of-consciousness rant of a particularly invested lunatic.
This might be the record where Mastodon finally jumps the shark. Sure, they’ve released albums based on Moby Dick and other weirdness before, but this is some next-level shit. They’re no longer a metal band with prog tendencies; they’re a prog band with metal tendencies. Two tracks topping the 10-minute mark prove this point quite nicely.
It’s telling, I think, that Mastodon’s most ambitious concept album in a 10-year career full of concept albums is also their most accessible. They’ve traded one extreme for another.
Conceptual bloat aside, the musical richness of this album is remarkable. Among the standard guitars, bass and drums, you’ll find banjo, mellotron and synths. You’ll also find songs with great riffs and “metal” parts, fast parts and slow parts—a million different sounds arranged carefully into place.
Crack the Skye‘s 13-minute closing track, “The Last Baron,” may be the band’s most holistic thesis of ideals ever put to tape. It opens with the phrase “I’d guess they would say we could set this world ablaze,” and proceeds to do just that, mowing through every conceivable style Mastodon could lay down in gloriously long-winded package.
This is prog for the new age, but what that means even Mastodon isn’t sure.