The Czar: Usurper/Escape/Martyr/Spiral
Ghost Of Karelia
Crack The Skye
The Last Baron
You can never accuse Mastodon of taking the easy route. Their 2009 release Crack The Skye – an album that dealt with astral travel, wormhole theory, Rasputin and the suicide of drummer Brann Dailor’s sister – drew plaudits for its sprawling inventiveness.
“It started out with us knowing we wanted to tell a story about ether; people thinking the human spirit was made of ether, so I started with the idea of astral travel,” drummer, main lyricist and the source of the intriguing concept of Crack The Skye, Dailor says. “Troy [Sanders, bass and vocals] wanted to do something with outer space. So we put them together, this guy going up into space as he astral travels. He goes too close to the sun and it burns off the golden umbilical cord that connects the spirit to the body. He gets sucked into a wormhole.”
Now if that sounds weird, throw in paraplegics, Rasputin, a Russian religious cult, a few time dimension shifts and the Dark Lord himself, and you probably have the measure of the themes that drive Crack The Skye. Or not, as the case may be.
Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute.
Other albums released in March 2009
- The Answer - Everyday Demons
- The Church - Untitled #23
- Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!
- Pure Reason Revolution - Amor Vincit Omnia
- Chris Cornell - Scream
- Seventh Day Slumber - Take Everything
- Yngwie Malmsteen - Angels of Love
- Pestilence - Resurrection Macabre
- Static-X - Cult of Static
- Therapy? - Crooked Timber
- The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love
- KMFDM - Blitz
- Papa Roach - Metamorphosis
- Death Cab for Cutie - The Open Door
- Stevie Nicks - The Soundstage Sessions
What they said...
"In a way, Mastodon operates something like prime-era Metallica, unleashing these huge, blistering tracks that journey over peaks and valleys and ditches and oceans before leaving you spinning. It's just that Mastodon's arsenal of weapons is different; instead of demi-classical guitar interludes and blazing twin-guitar leads and thuggish hey-hey-heys, they've got soupy quasi-jazz trundles and pigfuck distortion-explosions and quick bursts of time-honoured Southern-rock melody." (Pitchfork)
"It's to the constant detriment of 'metal' as a label that lazy journalism dictates that it's somehow comical, monolithic and essentially unintelligent. Yet it would be interesting to see say, Coldplay or U2 come up with something this ambitious, intricate and still downright rocking. This is the sound of band stretching themselves to their limit and giving us more than we probably deserve." (BBC)
"Rather than being a band content to cover itself and pump out albums every year to increasingly lukewarm praise, Mastodon demonstrates on Crack the Skye not just a commitment to prog, but to progress. Which leaves the listener to wonder what’s next for Mastodon-a knee-jerk return to its Relapse-era stoner/hardcore, or Genesis-like levels of prog excess? Only time will tell: but if Crack the Skye suggests anything, it suggests that it will defy expectations." (Consequence Of Sound)
What you said...
John Davidson: Crack The Skye is a dense and complex album that barely allows the listener to catch a breath. It thunders and roars like a raging storm, but there is a melodic core among the maelstrom, that if you can grab hold of it, and grasp it tightly, reveals the beauty at its rhythmic heart.
At times it sounds like every member of the band is playing a different song simultaneously, but somehow it manages to sound coherent. Yes – of all the bands they don’t sound like – had a similar quality, and it takes masterful musicians to sustain.
Mastodon (and the Crack The Skye album in particular) occupy that crossover space in the Venn diagram of rock: between sludgy, old school heavy metal, thrash sensibilities and properly complex prog arrangements. Sometimes they take it too far and the song de-coheres into noise (as it does in Quintessence), but for the most part they pull off the near impossible.
In terms of guitars, the riffs are heavily Sabbath inspired and the vocals are largely in that almost off-key Ozzy style drone. The drumming is however insane. I like music with good drummers and love Rush and listen to a lot of prog, but few others have the power and precision to play music this intense and complicated. Just listening to them is exhausting. The bass playing provides a steady groove and an anchor point for the beat while the drummer fills on top of his fills.
While there really isn’t a bad track on the album, the best of them are the most classically progressive in Czar and The Last Baron, both of which benefit from a little more breathing room and some fantastic guitar work. Weaker songs are Quintessence (mentioned above) and Crack The Skye – which is musically excellent, but which features some of the “cookie monster” death metal growls that put me off their previous albums.
For anyone put off by the prog length songs I’d recommend Once Around The Sun or The Hunter as more accessible starting points for the band.
Like a lot of prog bands, at their worst they are impressive and at their best they are mesmerising. One to savour.
Daniel Peoples: Love it. Blood Mountain was my intro and it was on constantly one summer during my daily jogs. Crack The Sky solidified them as one of my top five bands. This is an album of epics, and with the introduction of Brann's vocals along with more melody throughout, it is an all time favourite album of mine.
Elad Winberg: Great, great album. I mean, people can say that metal and rock are dead all they want, but bands like Mastodon proved otherwise back in the last decade. Their songwriting was top notch, the music is innovative and unique, and all of their vocalists have their own charm, especially Troy Sanders with his more guttural voice. I'd say that this album is one of the best Prog Metal has to offer. This record and From Mars To Sirius by Gojira were my introduction to the new generation of great metal artists with an interesting approach to writing and composing music
Jonathan Novajosky: Never heard of this band until now, and I read they're from Atlanta (woohoo!), so I was intrigued. I'm generally not a huge fan of modern metal. I tend to stick with the classics like Rainbow, UFO, and Van Halen. My main complaint for the genre is that the heaviness usually means vocal performance is sacrificed for some reason; and in its stead is filled with not-so-pleasant yelling. Just my opinion.
However, I was glad to hear that this wasn't the case with Crack The Skye for the most case. Oblivion is a great intro to the album. It's got that slow buildup before really kicking you hard. I'm always a sucker for bands with multiple singers, and the change up in sound and style between them in Oblivion made it my favourite off the album.
Divinations and Quintessance were okay, but my excitement somewhat returned for The Czar. I love long, epic songs like this (Stargazer, Bat Out of Hell and Scenes From An Italian Restaurant are some of my favourite songs of all time); and I thought it gave a nice little touch of prog and variety to the album.
The only song I straight up did not enjoy was the title track, mainly for reasons I mentioned earlier. But overall, I have a positive first impression of Mastodon and Crack The Skye. Well done to these guys for keeping hard rock alive. 7/10
Bill Griffin: I have never before heard a band so in need of a singer as this one. Forced myself to listen all the way through once and, though musically there were interesting spots, I won't be giving it a second go round.
Happs Richards: You can’t beat a bit of Mastodon, ok maybe Oblivion isn’t the best song to self isolate too, but this is a great album, gloriously verbose and overblown in places but a pleasure to rediscover!!
Mike Knoop: Another album I like well enough while it's on, but couldn't hum a tune from it if you held a gun to my head. I found myself checking the track list at certain points (about four minutes into The Czar, halfway through the The Last Baron, when the vocals kick in on the title track), but most of it rumbled past like a locomotive in my periphery.
It all strikes me as kind of anonymous. I've dipped my ear occasionally into post-2K metal, but someone with finer hearing than mine will need to explain the difference to me between Mastodon and likeminded bands like Baroness or High on Fire. I do salute cover artist Paul Romano, who did their early artwork, for another beautiful yet unsettling album cover. He really helped Mastodon stand out from the rest.
Flávio Santos: The first Mastodon album I listened to and it was a cracker. The musical expertise, the dense and varied layers of guitars, three singers, an astonishing drummer, great music, it's difficult to put into words the incredible dimension of this musical journey. A masterpiece!
Mark Mastrorocco: Also my intro to Mastodon. I was instantly blown away by the rhythm section. Brann (drums) and Troy (bass) groove like no other. Quite possibly one of the best albums of the past 10+ years. The Last Baron is an absolute musical masterpiece.
Robert Dunn: I may have to go and lie down, I am feeling rather bludgeoned at the moment. There is no doubting the musicianship of all involved, but the chug-chug-chug of chord after chord accompanied by too much drumming and growling just isn't my thing. I had wondered if the reference to Karelia would introduce a spot of Sibelius, but if it was there it was being battered to death by a prehistoric mammoth (mastodon, it was a joke of sorts).
Likewise there was no reference to a bonnie boat despite the mention of Skye, but then there is no shepherd in shepherd's pie either. I am not a fan of heavy metal in anything other than bite size portions, it may well be old fart syndrome, but this has done nothing to change my mind. I almost said it was too loud and you couldn't make out the words but that would have meant I had turned into my father, and that is too scary to contemplate. I am glad it was suggested and chosen though, it is always good to hear something you wouldn't normally listen to, even if it is only once.
Iain Macaulay: This really hit the spot with me for this week. Whether because of world events or because I just needed to hear a soundscape like this, I don’t know, and I’m not questioning it.
I’m not a fan of all their stuff but I really like this album. Yes, there is a lot going on In each track, and yes, you need to invest a bit of time to soak it in. But it is still a very accessible, warm sounding, sophisticated listen. Colourful without being a messy palate of incoherent noise. Technically superb without being totally pompous and overblown. And boy can they write a big chorus when they want to.
Where as some disagree, I personally love that the sounds change through the tracks, both the guitars and vocals, in styles and sonically. For me, it really adds to the interest level. Especially as I usually find music like this quite monotonous and repetitive after a while. It’s a musicians album. One a lot of kids learnt to play the guitar and drums to. And that is something you can’t fault. One thing I can fault is some of the lyrics, but you can’t win ‘em all.
Richard Brantner: I recently saw them perform this album in its entirety in Kansas City. I’m very familiar with the album but here’s my take. As a high school musician with some like minded friends we had a metal band. The album I always had my minds eye on to make was pretty much this one. The guitar work is amazing. Ominous chord arpeggios set a mystical mood that really moves me. Couple that with Mastodon's well documented riffing ability and it pushes it over the top.
Dailor is one of my favourite drummers because of the way he pushes a progression. The song arrangements are chaotically amazing. So many big moments. Though not the greatest singers, they make it work for them and sound like they belong in the composition. But the vibe/atmosphere is where it is always at for me. That’s why it’s one of my faves. Put on a set of headphones and it will take you to another place.
Glenn McDonald: Wow! I can't believe this is more than a decade old already. Crack The Skye is a modern metal classic. They made heavier material beforehand, and much more accessible song-based material thereafter, with this album being the crossover point between the two. The band were at their bravest in terms of musical and lyrical concept, stylistically pushing the envelope, and because of that some of it isn't an easy listen.
At the same time producer Brendan O'Brien cleaned up their sound, providing better definition between instruments within their multi-guitar sludge-attack, and improving the vocals no end in comparison to earlier albums.
When you break this involving record down into bite-sized chunks there are actually a couple of pretty straight-up heavy rock "radio" singles on here (ok, we're not talking Foreigner, but comparatively). Firstly Divinations, where a Celtic folk guitar intro is followed by a Lizzy-esque riff and a rolling drum pattern a lá Dave Grohl's stint with QOTSA. And next Oblivion, with it's grungy Alice In Chains-style chorus, chug-along guitar motif and spaced-out solo.
However, the real meat is to be found among the album's two lengthy and challenging prog-metal pieces, namely The Czar and The Last Baron. It's music to get lost in, where dreamy No Quarter-like soundscapes are punctured and punctuated by snorting guitar riffs and stabs of brutal heaviness. One minute you're floating, next thing you're grooving, and finally you're headbanging. By the end you're exhausted, but it was worth the trip.
A truly absorbing and cathartic listening experience, the best thing Mastodon have done to date and, once a few more years have passed, one for the metal ages.
Anthony Crawford: This album really hit the spot for me. A stone cold classic. I was introduced to Mastodon via Blood And Thunder (GH3) and loved Leviathan. Not too keen on the following Blood Mountain and took a chance that Crack The Skye was a return to form. I remember a lot of the press focusing on the concept of the album and that kinda drew me in. Bought it on release & loved it right away. Really wish I caught the accompanying tour where they played it in full. Still have Live At The Aragon for that itch though.
Carl Black: This is a bit of a blindspot for me. I've seen them lots of times, and a good friend gave me their first two albums. But Mastodon never struck a cord with me. However, they do hit the mark every now and then. Blood And Thunder and Toe To Toe are fantastic songs. Crack The Skye falls in-between these two songs, but never reaches their highs.
They got heaped in with all the thrash bands but Mastodon are a one-off. They never sat well with these bands. Crack The Skye is a consistent album that has no real highlights or low lights. I feel I should like them more, but I don't. And yet I should.
Elliot Brown: Mastodon are really important in my view as they've kept prog going, turning it from a genre your dad listened to to something cool and interesting they helped introduce to a new generation. Between them and Opeth it helped me at 19 discover a whole genre, and work backwards to discover all the older greats. This album is a masterpiece.
Nigel Lancashire: This is my first experience of Mastadon musically. I’d seen the band’s photos and quotes from interviews across rock media but the surly vibe they gave off suggested they were very much not a band for me. So as Crack The Skye began, it was a bit of a revelation. Oblivion caught me completely by surprise. And I continued to be just that... but that’s not exactly the ‘thumbs up’ it might sound like.
Did I enjoy Crack the Skye? That’s a tough one. I certainly didn’t hate it, but sludge/stoner/doom metal (or whatever you choose to call it) has never been my thing. I wasn’t ever a fan of bands that follow the early Black Sabbath approach. That said, the level of musicianship was a real surprise, and the degree of complexity and thought put in to every song is clear.
As the album continues, I’m impressed but not having fun. The sheer density of the music gets wearing, and in particular, the band’s shared lack of vocal skill. The sub-Ozzy drone of (I think) drummer Brann Dailor is the most distinctive, and also the most irritating/distracting for me. Other than that, I won’t pick into the individual musicians, Mastodon are clearly a skilled bunch that mesh well to create a solid band sound.
For balance and perhaps a bit more understanding, I gave the band’s latest, Emperor Of Sand, a swift spin, I note that on that album at least, they haven’t really moved forward musically or vocally from this 2009 release, which is a shame. I heard real potential for a striking masterwork of an Opeth nature possibly, but seemingly (and yes, I know that’s unfair on a quick spin of just one other record) it didn’t happen. So that’s it for me. I leave Crack The Skye with a respect for the band I didn’t expect to have, but unexcited to explore their downer-laden rock further.
Marco LG: We all agree great rock and metal music didn’t stop being published in 1999, but it is perhaps more difficult to agree on exactly which albums published in the current century deserve to be labelled ‘great’. In my opinion Mastodon managed to produce at least two of those: Crack The Skye and Emperor Of Sand.
The first, and currently under review, is a behemoth of an album, with long compositions and plenty of riffs chasing each other, the second is a more streamlined effort with shorter compositions and ideas developed in forms closer to actual songs. Personally I think Emperor Of Sand is the better one, but since it came out in 2017 and is currently their latest effort it might need a few more years to be recognised as such.
Having said Crack The Skye is a behemoth, I need to clarify it is not in any way tiring for the listener. Clocking at around 50 minutes, by the time The Last Baron is over I find myself always wanting more. Even after several listens in a row. It might be because the last two songs are my favourite, but I tend to believe it is because the whole listening experience is quite special.
Since there is no real lead vocalist it is probably surprising that a lot of discussions about Mastodon end up being about vocal performance. Nevertheless, this is one aspect where I believe the comparison with Emperor Of Sand is actually in favour of Crack The Skye, because here the three different vocalists alternate each other in a more balanced way, but then again it might just be my personal preference for the tone of Brent Hinds’s voice.
Where Mastodon excel however is in the quality of their musicianship, and their compositions are always more about the instrumental music, especially the riffs and the rhythms. This aspect reached total sublimation in Crack The Skye, with two incredible epics closing the two sides of the album: the aforementioned The Last Baron, and The Czar, which is further divided into four parts in typical prog style.
My favourite is however the title track: a rich and slow riff accompanying highly distorted vocals form the background for a series of melodic breaks, several awe inspiring solos and an instantly recognisable chorus. It always makes me want to dance!
In conclusion: Crack The Skye is a great modern prog album. It makes for a rich and dense listen, with long compositions and plenty of awe inspiring moments. But it is also a bit of a behemoth, where it is difficult to isolate the single songs and extract one’s favourite moments. Mastodon went on to produce more focused efforts, most notably their latest, so this remains a unique view on their more prog oriented vision. 8 / 10 from me.
Roland Bearne: I find myself admiring this at a distance rather than being drawn into a musically immersive experience. There is no doubt that what has been created here is musically highly accomplished, with progressions, time changes and themes meshed together with enough going on to make any Math-metal brainiac smile smugly. It all sounds high quality, ultra slick, suitably oddball and with a lot of 7/8-string riffing to lend real beef to the bottom end.
It just doesn't draw me in, then when it all gets a bit grunty I sort of switch off (My death metal flirtation is well and truly over! Sold the lot.) I bought Leviathan when it came out and hated it! It languishes unloved in storage! I don't hate this, as I said it sounds "admirable", but It really hasn't opened up for me. I'll keep it downloaded and live with it for a while. Let's see.
Final Score: 8.09⁄10 (162 votes cast, with a total score of 1312)
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