Crack the Skye

(Reprise; 2009)

By Mark Abraham | 15 April 2009

After starting a fire under metal’s ass, plumbing the depths of the ocean, and scaling the heights of a mountain Mastodon are now…sputtering, gurgling, and heaving, sitting around their living room smoking joints and marveling at how sick that there riff is. Given all of its ambition, Crack the Skye is the album that surprisingly humanizes a band previously notable for untempered, divine riffage. And sure, metal is always on the verge of hilarious melodrama, but you can actually hear the band turning themselves into metal-mocking puppets. But, like, puppets that take themselves too seriously. This is not the Mastodon you grew up with; it’s Snuffleupagus masturbating with a copy of The Chaldæan Oracles of Zoroaster while a NOFX cover of “Rasputin” plays in the background. How many ways can you unserious yourself? Dear band members: I know you think music is imaginary but I swear to god it’s real and it talks to me everyday.

I guess you could call this their prog diversion, but that’s only true in the sense that Dream Theater is prog. This is the icing without the cake, and floating about some weird story that involves an astral-projecting quadriplegic, Rasputin (…of course), and a golden umbilical chord are a band that’s obviously been digging their heels into each side of a very typical canyon: credibility on one side, mainstream success on the other. And in the middle of this particular version of that canyon is Brendan O’Brien, a yawning chasm that sucks the life out of what is good about this album by keeping the kicks and skins knotted into a tight little ball in the center of the mix. Check out the cover; I think it’s a secret message: the low end is that little ball hedged into the center by two overwhelming angry axe-wielding warriors.

The album is a giant raging puppet but all there is is fluff inside; Brann Dailor sounds like he’s playing in the next room, rather than putting down the pins to keep the guitars from flying away in the wind. Which is weird, because Dailor is at least three of the four best things about this band—although, to be fair, he’s also the one worst thing, as lyricist. So what happened? Did he get O’Brien the wrong chocolate bar from the vending machine or something? Why banish him to the milky way? With no heft, every wicked guitar solo sounds like the band slipping on banana peels. Take “The Last Baron,” where the gloomy mood is sapped by heaping handfuls of bassy guitars, chimes, keys, and background vocals. The whole thing is just too much. Let’s actually hear the instruments breathe, rather than vomit on us. Or at least let’s hear those lovely fills Dailor is pulling off; they sound like inconsistencies in the audio more than anything. A gurgle is not the same thing as a rumble, and for all the aquatic angst of Leviathan (2004), it never sounded like the band was drowning in their own catharsis. “The Last Baron” should be a wicked closer; instead, it’s just frustrating. Just imagine: what if the first time you heard “Purple Haze” it was wrapped in Saran Wrap?

I mean, O’Brien’s post-1990s resume should explain at least some of the problem here: it features Audioslave, Incubus, and the discovery of compression. It can’t explain it all, though, and so what’s also a shame is that the band let him go here, and followed him on this slushy journey. The composition is uneven at best; the storyline is…superfluous. The story is and isn’t about anything specific because the lyrics aren’t specific enough for it to be about anything other than what I (or you) read into it (although Dailor’s lyrics make Rasputin sound about as cool as Jimmy Page climbing that goddamn mountain in The Song Remains the Same).

But the real problem here is scope. This is the first Mastodon album I haven’t wanted to listen to again. Except maybe “Czar”—that track is pretty cool, mostly because it’s sectional composition gives everything room to play out. But for the rest of it: is there any band that has ever made this kind of dopey, epic ambition sound good? Faith No More mostly worked because they scaled epic stuff down to its roots and then sang lyrics about being jealous of somebody’s statue collection. But when you push this stuff to it’s illogical extreme, this is what you get: deep atmospherics, technical proficiency out the ying yang, and, to steal a metaphor from the album, a sun-like thing that you don’t actually want to stand too close to. And then you get press comparisons to bands like King Crimson (bullshit) and…Rush. Not to slam Rush; it’s just that when someone compares you to Rush they almost always mean it as a compliment but it almost always never is. That’s the Rush Law of Music-Related Commentary. And the King Crimson Law of Music-Related Commentary is simple: don’t compare something ambitious to King Crimson, because King Crimson never attempted to make an ambitious album. That’s your shit you’re putting on them because they sound so different; they’re just a jazz band playing heavy metal for shits and giggles. Robert Fripp never believed he could follow in the wake of Poseidon; Mastodon have always tread a fine line between making you wonder if they do think that, but on Crack the Skye they’ve erased that line with every Rasputin/stolen body/puppet plot twist they offer.

And this issue of scope extends to the actual music as well. I mean, the obvious reason Entertainment Weekly shouldn’t be throwing King Crimson comparisons around is the guitar stuff: Fripp and Belew would have never created this kind of bullshit guitar pileup. And look—it’s a fiction for most bands that they actually enter the studio and record things live. But the reason you still sort of should at least make it sound like you did is that if you don’t you end up with a mess like “Oblivion”—a decent enough song that is already burnishing double-tracked guitars when new lead guitar lines join in and then more join in and suddenly the right and left areas of the aural spectrum are bristling with over-compressed and under-blended lines. Dudes: I know it’s sad, but you may need to stop the palm-muting for a few minutes to play that guitar line with some headroom and leave the riffing to the bass and drums. It’s only a couple of bars, after all.

First single “Divinations”—the video of which with its Yeti-rapes-the-virgin narrative is a whole other pile of BS—actually highlights how weird the overplaying and overproduction are everywhere else. To be a single, the thing is stripped down, the drums are a bit more—but not much more—expansive, and the elliptical guitar patterns over the chorus are given room to breath. Of course, it’s also kind of a shitty song and those four-beat lead-ins to the chorus vocal lines that should be punctuating the lyrics are sapped of any power because the bass and the drums are putting when they should be booming. And what the fuck is up with that guitar solo? And everywhere else this problem is amplified. For all the french kissing Loveless (1991) gets for it’s 1,987 guitar tracks at least Kevin Shields knew how to boil that shit down to something that was overwhelming in tone and not just sheer volume. I’m looking at you, “Quintessence,” and I’ll be looking at you again in every high school talent show for the next three years.

None of this is to say that Mastodon is mythically slumming their way to extinction. There’s some really wicked ideas buried in the mud here, but between some humdrum instrumental passages and a lot of nu-metal lite-style singing and the general mess of sonics trying to pull them out is like forcing yourself to listen to Joe Satriani for the cool parts. Most of this is hot air, I mean, but maybe that’s just because they knocked this out to say they covered all four elements. I just hope, whatever they do next, they remember the lessons of their fire, water, and earth albums. Their take on air is—both figuratively and literally, given the way the low end is erased on this album—just kind of weightless.