27 March 2009

Mastodon: Crack the Skye initial thoughts


After forgetting when it was coming out and then waiting for ‘Indigo Starfish’ to send my CD when I ordered from Amazon (what’s the deal with that?), my shiny new copy of the new Mastodon album arrived this very morning. I even splurged on the version with the DVD because I am a sucker for making-of DVDs.

After giving it a couple of listens, and the DVD one viewing, I can safely say hmmm. Not necessarily in a bad way, but I suppose people never say it in a particularly good way. I like it.

I have just never been the biggest Mastodon fan. They emerged when I was in a sulk with metal, and tried pretending that everything that came out wasn’t very good. Thankfully I saw the error of my ways, but the tons of praise being flung at this Atlanta quartet did seem a bit untoward.

They struck me as a very early 2000s heavy metal band, and nothing more. They took influence from the hyper-modern Noisecore subgenre that had ended just as they started, and mixed it with trad heavy metal sounds. It just struck me as a less-good Soilent Green, but with epic stuff added. It didn’t help that I originally knew of half the band as Steve Austin’s 1999 session musicians in Today Is The Day.

Over the years I have warmed to them, partly because Scott Kelly from Neurosis is a regular guest on their albums, and partly because they are pretty damn good. I think my fave album of theirs is Blood Mountain, where intricate metal arrangements mixed with strong hooks to great effect. It was even the official token metal album of 2006. Aww.

So I was quite excited about the new album, Crack the Skye. Just not hurling myself at the wall in anticipation or anything. My first listen was on headphones, and it’s clear they have settled into their major label status.

Apart from supporting Metallica a fair bit, they have switched producers for this one. Out went Matt Bayles, renowned producer of Noisecore bands like Isis and Botch, and in came Brendan O’Brien, who has produced… pretty much everybody. I know him mainly for producing (post)-grunge bands like Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden, and less grungey acts like Rage Against The Machine and some dude named Bruce Springsteen.

Fair enough, it’s all part of the leap into the mainstream. The band was also, bless their sweaty cotton socks, able to buy $3000 foot synths and other posh bits of equipment. Which is slightly moot considering O’Brien apparently owns every bit of equipment in the world.

The music itself is certainly fine, but nothing earth-shattering. Yesterday I had been listening to Static Tensions, the new album by fellow Georgians, the much more spikily named Kylesa. It was an entertaining way to spend three quarters of an hour: sorta stoner/sludge with impressively technical aspects and some oddly compelling hooks. ‘Unknown Awareness’, an ominous slab of darkness with sinewy lead guitar lines stretching over its surface, is the brilliant highlight. I imagined the new Mastodon would be a lot better. At least I hoped it would be.

It is certainly deeper, and you can tell which album had more cash lavished on it, had the star producer, and the relative luxury of time to make it. The first thing that struck me about Crack the Skye was just how melodic it is. Not really a surprise, as they were heading in this direction on Blood Mountain, but melody is clearly the watchword.

And if that’s the case, then prog is blatantly the back-up word. Not that this is a surprise, either, as the band has always been pretty proggy, and there was no reason to think they wouldn’t explore this avenue further. There are two epics on here, one of which features the prog hallmark of subtitles. Yes, ‘The Czar: i. Usurper ii. Escape iii. Martyr iv. Spiral’ is a ten-minute kinda epic with some nice keyboards, and it sounds rather like a certain Mars Volta.

More impressive, in that it bolsters the identity of Mastodon, is the album’s finale, ‘The Last Baron’. This features the most impressive vocals – more on this in a bit – and generally seems like it’s going to be the band’s status song. This one aside, the band generally seems more comfortable when they keep to more normal song lengths.

I reckon it will take a few more listens to really get to grips with this one. While the band claims it’s very ‘classic rock’ it is neither as simple nor as instantly memorable as the bigger hits of, say, Thin Lizzy or Mötörhead. The tones of the instruments, whether drum or guitar, have had the metallic edge stripped from them, in favour of a warmer sound. The bass is more full and satisfying. There is nothing as immediately hooking as the riffs of ‘The Wolf is Loose’ or ‘Colony of Birchmen’s chorus, both from the last album.

It’s compelling enough to stick with, though, and I see myself liking it more as time goes on. As for whether it’s that much better than the Kylesa, only time will tell.

As entertaining as the album is, I must admit I have gained more from the bonus making-of DVD. I have always loved seeing how a band goes about its business, and seeing the process of an album’s production, but mainly because we get to find out what the band’s thought process is.

And this was really enlightening. At first I thought the title 'Crack the Skye' was just the result of flicking a random prog name generator on and adding some olde worlde spelling. The truth is far more touching. It turns out Skye was the name of drummer Brann Dailor’s sister, who committed suicide when she was 14. I haven’t had much chance to read the lyric booklet, but a lot of this album’s lyrical content is apparently Dailor’s tribute to her.

Another emotionally affecting segment of the DVD concerns lead vocalist Brent Hinds, and the fight he got into at the MTV Video Music Awards, from which he received a broken nose and a brain haemorrhage. I had wondered why he wasn’t making any comments on the ‘Blood Mountain tour ends’ segment, and that’ll be because he was convalescing. He had months of labyrinthitis, and that experience apparently inspired his writing the music for this album. Talk about a cathartic record.

Aside from that, we get to see what went into the making of the album and – a part that I especially love – guitar and drum parts in isolation. I got more out of one Hinds solo on the DVD than I did on two plays of the album. I’m still not sure I’ve heard it on the album, in fact. And the sound he gets on the Flying V segment is gorgeous. I don’t know if he was always like that, or if it’s a result of the attack, but Brent is a brilliantly weird dude.

The DVD is also very funny. I won’t spoil it all for you, but highlights include Troy discussing what look they would be going for when marketing the album (complete with haircut chart), and Brann divulging the storyline of the record – while his lawnmower drowns him out. The scamp! And, I dunno, it’s just nice to see people who get paid handsomely for rocking out.

All in all, I’m happy with my purchase. They’re still not my favourite band or anything, but the DVD didn’t drag at all in its hour and a half. I’ve listened to the album twice today without getting the slightest bit bored of it, and I am confident the best of it is yet to come. Just one thing: they seriously need a lead singer. They’re like a football team with a great midfield and no striker. They need that finishing touch if they are really gonna be a premier league band.

8 comments:

  1. I'm listening to this right now, as I type, and I'm unsure what to think of it.

    I don't like the opening track, but the rest I am really liking so far.

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  2. I haven't heard it yet, other than one song I can't remember the title of. I thought it was definitely a departure for them, moreso than even Blood Mountain was. It took me nearly 8 months to really dig Blood Mountain and come around to it, but I finally did and still enjoy many tracks on it. For me, Leviathan is their best with Remission a close second.

    What I've heard about the new album has dampened my enthusiasm, especially the part about Dailor toning down his busy and chaotic drumming style. Is this true? I'll miss all the creative fills. He was/is the lifeblood (excuse the pun) of the band for me, and even on the lesser tracks of past albums, he was a joy to listen to on the kit.

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  3. The drummer kinda got rid of all the crazy fills in lieu of grooves and actually holding a beat. He was all excited talking about doing that, but yeah no more fills.

    This album, btw, has completely grown on me. The first track that I hated, the chorus has grown on me as one of my favorite things all year.

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  4. Think I'm going to write another post about this, actually. There's a fair bit to say about Crack the Skye, it turns out.

    Like I said more than six words about the actual music in this post, right?

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  5. Anonymous2:02 am

    They actually did have a guy who did nothing, but sing for a few months around when they first formed.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yu-Cjd6d_d4

    That's the only stuff I've seen/heard with him on it. There's a demo out there too.

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  6. Wow, thanks for that! I knew they had a singer at one point, but had never heard him. Interesting bit of Atlanta noisecore; sounds a bit like Burn It Down.

    July 2000: I guess they didn't stay in Today Is The Day for very long at all, as I saw Brann and Bill supporting Neurosis with TITD in November 1999...

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  7. Even if I do not end up liking the album when I eventually get it, I will still probably go see them again, as they put on a very good show when I saw them in Cincinnati a couple of years ago.

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  8. My stupid second post is taking longer to write than I had hoped. Apologies.

    I hear that the band will be playing the new album in its entirety when they tour, so I hope you do like this album. See them either way, because Mastodon/Kylesa/Intronaut is a very solid line-up.

    ReplyDelete

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