To begin, there’s no avoiding mentioning the tardiness of this review. Its conspicuous absence was intentional. With Mastodon, I’ve been what you’d call an early adopter, since the March Of The Fire Ants EP showed up at college radio. After Blood Mountain, which critically went over quite well overall but with me showed signs of retreading old ground, I had chalked it up to a highly stressful situation (leaving Relapse for Warner, all eyes on the ‘don, so to speak) as well as Mastodon’s overall drive to experiment. Pink Floyd put out a lot of albums that fans debate over but most people ignore between Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and Dark Side Of The Moon. There’s no contract signed by myself and Mastodon saying they’re going to kick my ass every time they put out a record, and that’s understandable.
A set immediately following Blood Mountain’s release at Webster Hall reassured me, but a few years later, opening for Neurosis in Brooklyn, the band was clearly out of practice, to the point where I could read frustration in Brann Dailor’s face from the balcony of the Masonic Temple. I had seen the band over a half dozen times live by then (well back from when they were opening for Clutch), and it was by far their worst performance at which I was present.
So it was with some trepidation that I dipped into Crack The Skye. The “seaworthy” scales, the overambitious leads and the gradual preference for complexity over simplicity (Compare Remission’s “Mother Puncher” or “Where Strides The Behemoth” to Blood Mountain’s “Capillarian Crest” or “Siberian Divide”)—I had grown weary of a lot of what Mastodon had done with Blood Mountain, as it was clear they’d already done all that perfectly by Leviathan.
While Crack The Skye isn’t free of any of those elements, they’re approached differently, and far more idiosyncratically. It’s not a metal album. In fact, it’s barely metal at all, and it plays like it’s trying to be a prog classic rather than something to rock out to. And sometimes, when you do rock out to it, it feels a little weird. Take the samba rhythm in the (very long) chorus section of “The Czar.” I’m not entirely warmed up to it, but I’m not sure if I should be, given the relative longwindedness of that complicated section. However, take other elements: the chorus of album standout “Oblivion,” for instance, exhibits the incredibly effective results of this traditional metal song-eschewing approach.
If anything, the incredibly detailed, unbelievably inventive and mindblowingly strange storyline and concept—a child paraplegic with a golden umbilical chord who astral travels but gets sucked through a wormhole and ends up in the body of Rasputin before running into the devil while trying to reunite himself with his original form—in an indication. That’s a scaled down version of the whole story, and it sheds some light on the overarching preference for out-of-this-world detail that might be the Achilles’ Heel of the band moving forward.
Mastodon’s loquacious songwriting and song arranging has reached new, bizarre heights with Crack The Skye, and it’s an oddly breathtaking listen, but enough pitfalls exist in the execution to let the listener fall back down to earth and breaks the disbelief, which can be fatal for such an ornate, intricate listen.
In A Word: Ambitious