Happy 2018, everybody! Now that 2017 has gone the way of the dodo, let’s see what this year has to offer for us all, eh? The first thing yours truly here has in store for you is the nineteenth episode of A Scene In Retrospect! Catering to the age-old cliché of starting the new year off with a bang, our Editor-in-Chief Landon, PR/social media manager Inter, and staff writers David and Jake, as well as myself, will talk about one of the most acclaimed and important modern progressive metal records: Crack The Skye by Mastodon. Enjoy!
Crack The Skye is what sold me on Mastodon, even though I started, like many, with Leviathan. It’s not hard to see why; this was, and still is, the band’s most affecting and fleshed-out album. There is a ghostly presence in every song, and that’s a very purposeful thing considering the concept. Drummer Brann Dailor details it nicely in this interview with Billboard if you’re unfamiliar.
Dailor’s personal attachment to this album allows him to give stirring, haunting performances for his vocal debut, particularly on “Oblivion” and the title track. “Crack the Skye” is in part a tribute to Dailor’s sister, who committed suicide when they were both teenagers, and you can feel the emotional weight of that tragedy in this song. Frequent collaborator Scott Kelly (Neurosis) lends his voice to the song as well, creating a duet dynamic with Dailor that’s truly amazing.
Troy Sanders and Brent Hinds, who always shared lead vocal duties, don’t slouch either. Brent really digs into his vocal capabilities to bring forth some career-defining performances on “Quintessence” and “The Czar”, the latter being to this day the best Mastodon song ever recorded, and a landmark in modern metal. The progression of the song is astonishing, moving from a spacy, ethereal soundscape to a heavy metal climax with groovy guitars and punchy percussion. That style of progression is prominent all over the album, notably on “The Last Baron”. There’s a point almost dead center of the 13-minute song that is the most progressive that Mastodon has ever sounded. Some of the instrumentation and soloing wouldn’t be out of place in compositions of any prog rock legends you could name.
Crack The Skye is such a masterpiece, it shows a band at their best and brightest, musically and conceptually. Mastodon themselves will probably never top this, but that’s okay. It’s a product of a specific time in the band’s career and can’t, nor should it, be replicated. To quote Hinds, ‘don’t stay, run away’. We can still see these flashes of brilliance as the band evolves their sound more with albums like Emperor of Sand, which was quite well-acclaimed last year by fans and critics alike. As a fan, I feel lucky, privileged even, that I’m able to take a darkly beautiful and heavy trip through the aether just by listening to this album anytime I want.
Few records are more meaningful to me than Crack The Skye. Not only do I consider it to be one of the crowning jewels of modern progressive metal, but also the signature record for Mastodon. This album was also my first intersection with Mastodon, which makes my connection with it so special. I recall hearing the opening notes on the album for the first time: the fuzzy, bassy, dissonant riff to “Oblivion”. I hadn’t ever heard anything quite like it. Follow that up with the fill-heavy drumming that pushes the song right into the signature double-time riff, and I too felt like I was floating toward the Sun. It was a moment of revelation and an awakening.
I’m not sure how long it took me to dive deeper into the album, as I would mash the repeat button repeatedly on “Oblivion”. Once I did, however, I found an entirely new world waiting for me in “Divinations”- The southern- and surf rock influences skillfully smashed together courtesy of Bill Kelliher, along with the multi-vocal attack, still sends shivers down my spine. I genuinely love each member of the band for what they bring to their songs, but it’s here that my love of Brent Hinds’ sense of raw emotion and improvisation in his vocal and lead guitar performances began.
“The Czar: Usurper/Escape/Martyr/Spiral” demonstrates just how skilled this band is in composing and writing. Rasputin is one of the most heavy metal characters from history, and a four-part suite about this nearly unkillable man is a genuine prog masterwork. It’s intricate, dynamic, expansive, and easily one of the best songs that Mastodon has ever recorded. Following it up with the Troy Sanders-led “Ghost of Karelia” with its rollicking melody and thunderous drums courtesy of Brann Dailor is a genuine treat. Wrapping up with the title track and the opus that is “The Last Baron”, Crack The Skye comes to an epic conclusion.
Of all the things that I love about the album, it’s the tone of the record that I adore the most. Even after countless listens, the clarity of vision on this album still astonishes me. Credit no doubt should be given to producer Brendan O’Brien for his work here as well. From an audio and pacing perspective, Crack The Skye is the premier template for how to make a progressive metal album. I own this album in nearly every format, and it’s weekly that I find these riffs dancing around in my brain. I always welcome them.
Like much of my early heavy music exploration, my first exposure to Mastodon came in a subscription to Guitar World magazine covering Crack The Skye. Excited by the written description of their music, I found myself at the one music store in my small town and picked up the CD as soon as I could. The beautiful artwork earned the first in a long line of amazed expletives that I would utter over the next fifty minutes.
For all of its intricacies and excellence, Crack The Skye still blows me away eight years after its release with its excellent pacing: “Oblivion” and “Divinations” are huge, hooky openers that grab your attention; epics like “The Czar” and “The Last Baron” are placed excellently in the running time; and the emotive, heart-wrenching title track centers the album perfectly. It is immediately evident on the record that Mastodon honed their arrangements and melodic focus from their previous output, 2006’s Blood Mountain. Producer/mixer Brendan O’Brien managed to maintain a sludgy psychedelic sound to the record while ensuring that drums pounded, guitars soared, and synths furthered the astral themes of the record.
If there truly was ever a moment of synergy created, it would likely be on Crack The Skye; guitars dance deftly together to relentless drumming, three singers interact beautifully with heart-wrenching and ambitious lyrics, and all is tied together in a well-produced, cohesive package. I was perhaps too excited by last year’s Emperor of Sand, even claiming that it might oust Crack The Skye as my favorite Mastodon record, but Crack The Skye manages to be an album that few if none have matched or surpassed since its release.
To point out the elephant in the room straight at the beginning: Crack The Sky isn’t just the epitome of Mastodon‘s already impressive catalogue, but also one of the most iconic and impressive modern prog records. Many tried to reach for that magic (the band themselves included), but nobody could manage to recreate whatever happened on Crack The Skye. It feels kinda weird to tell people why this album is an indispensable part of your collection, because at this point, there should be no necessity for explanation. For the poor folks who still don’t get it, here is a quick portrait.
Crack The Skye is a nearly 50 minute-long trip, a journey through muddy sludginess, old school prog, hard rock anthems, and trippy, psychedelic endeavours. While incorporating a wide pallet of different styles, Mastodon manage to create an incredibly coherent soundscape owned and mastered by the band in every moment which passes while you listen to that beauty. The brilliant synergy between the vocals, delivered with stylistic confidence by Brann Dailor, Troy Sanders and Brent Hinds, is one of the keys to the amazing balancing act between progginess and accessibility. The album’s richness, catchiness and depth is one of a kind.
As one special highlight, I want to give praise to “The Czar”, arguably the best song the band has ever written. It’s the essence of what makes Crack The Skye so magnificent, galvanizing their multi-layered composition into one epic ride through the sky(e). The part with ‘Spiraling up through the crack in the sky/leaving material world behind/I see your face in constellations/The martyr is ending his life for mine‘, transcended and accompanied by a guitar solo, is easily one of the best musical moments I’ve ever encountered.
If you like art, you have to love this.
The age-old cliché of the suffering artist has always bothered me; it’s like we as a society are expecting the people who create the things we love to live in a perpetual cycle of pain and release for the sake of our own enjoyment. And yet, sometimes, an individual or group of people rises in the face of tragedy and adversity to birth something magnificent. Such is the case with Mastodon and the saddening back-story to Crack The Skye. I won’t elaborate on it (others have done so before me here), so let’s just stick to the music for the remainder of this piece, even though the strong feeling of loss and grief permeates many a moment on this album.
Before being introduced to Mastodon by Crack The Skye’s lead single “Oblivion”, the only remotely proggy thing I was ever subjected to were Coheed and Cambria, so it’s safe to say that my mind was blown discovering that there were more (and heavier) facets to this kind of forward-thinking music than I knew before. The song’s also a good example for Mastodon’s proclivity for hiding an ultra-awesome riff in the middle of a song; many a band would kill to build whole tracks around the kind of stuff they use in between other sections! Also, Brent Hinds is my favorite vocalist in the band, and I think my initial discovery of “Oblivion” played a huge role in that.
From there, it’s highlight after highlight. Every single song has something to make it stand out. “Divinations” has its surf rock/psychedelic tendencies, for example, and “The Czar” has been described by me as the ‘perfect example of how to string together an over ten minute-long prog track’ on multiple occasions. To me, Crack The Skye has no apparent weaknesses, neither in the songwriting nor the production; all elements brought in by the four members and producer Brendan O’Brien gel together marvellously. No metal album, progressive or otherwise, could ever reach the same heights again, at least in my opinion.
And that’s it for this (admittedly quite lengthy) episode of A Scene In Retrospect! What are your thoughts on this album? Are there any records you’d like to see receive the classic review treatment? Let us know in the comments!
See you in fourteen days for a discussion of another hugely important record for the modern progressive scene. Until then, saty safe, and as always…
…thanks for reading!