The following is part two of 45 RPM writer Jonathan Mondragon’s analysis of genre-bending metal act Mastodon’s discography. You can find part one to your right, under “related.”
Crack The Skye (2009)
The final entry in Mastodon’s “Elements” quadrilogy, and representing the element of air, Crack The Skye offers plenty of heaviness, while introducing a new and welcome dosage of prog. The album presents a goofy, multifaceted concept about a paraplegic man who astral projects, gets lost in outer space and lands inside a wormhole. This takes him to a spirit realm where Russian mystics perform a divination ritual that places his soul inside the body of Rasputin, who tries to usurp the Russian czar, gets murdered, winds up in hell and has to go toe-to-toe with the devil himself. Luckily, you can appreciate this album without digging deep into this kooky narrative.
Opening with the sludgy, melodic and spacey “Oblivion,” featuring a rare lead vocal part by drummer Brann Dailor, things rapidly ramp up with “Divinations.” Featuring rapid-fire banjo licks, classic thrashy shredding, palm-muted pummeling riffs and a surprisingly catchy chorus, it’s no wonder this was a single. Following this is perhaps the most forgettable track on the album, the odd “Quintessence,” the turning point of the story where the protagonist travels through time and space and winds up in old Russia. “The Czar” is the centerpiece of the album, including plenty of spacey, mysterious 12-string guitar arpeggios, quickly shifting into groovy country sludge, melodic thrash and back to mystery and gloom. To try to limit “The Czar” by describing its genre shifts is underestimating what it represents for Mastodon as a band. It, much like most of this album, is a seamless and fascinating amalgamation of styles that raised many eyebrows, but showed talent outside of the realm of sheer technicality.
The classic rock solo near the end takes us right back to where we started, and eventually into another interesting cut, “Ghost of Karelia.” This track is one of the most melodic and memorable on the album. Shifting time signatures, overdubbed mandolin, psychedelic slide guitar, dizzying melodic lead basslines and spot-on clean vocals are some highlights, but the song soon takes a turn for the heavy. It boasts a fair share of downtuned chugs and discordance galore, all while staying completely faithful to an out-there-yet-well-thought-out concept. Next is the title track, “Crack the Skye.” once again featuring a cameo by longtime friend and idol of the band, Scott Kelly of Neurosis. Right off the bat, a victorious, foreboding, and epic intro leads right into the most brutal moment on the album, and Kelly has never sounded so volatile. Once again, there are plenty of shifts between dropped tuning fury and melodic hooks, eventually introducing some vocoder-drenched vocals, a ripping guitar solo, and bringing us back to the fury, before an abrupt ending that takes us directly into the final track, the sprawling 13-minute “The Last Baron”.
More so than any other Mastodon song, Brent Hinds delivers a gorgeous vocal performance while declaring “we can set the world ablaze,” soon erupting into twin lead guitar licks, followed by a breakneck tempo increase, some truly mindblowing drums, thrashy riffs, more unbelievable soloing, jazzy chaos and eventually settling into more spaced-out grooves. The song ends just as it began, with melody and beauty, two words most fans/critics would have never expected to use to describe Mastodon. While being an incredible album, and a great example of how to do a prog-metal album with an epic concept, songs that flow perfectly into each other, and innovation, the album is not without flaws. It seems to suffer from a bit of “cut-and-paste” syndrome, where a few parts were written for each song, and were repeated until the song was the desired length, and it seems that Mastodon could have done a bit more to make the songs a bit less “verse-chorus-verse-solo-outro” and a bit more unpredictable, as they are surely capable of. They did a couple of tours playing this album in its entirety, and it definitely warrants it. Crack The Skye is an album best experienced all the way through. The journey through time, space, hell and Russia is a fun one, and recommended to anyone that wants to hear a very different Mastodon experimenting out of their comfort zone.
The Hunter (2011)
A band this genius has to eventually make a few mistakes, and The Hunter is pretty good, considering. Straightaway, we hear a sad truth: Mastodon has gone poppy. How has a band as creative, unrelenting, and fascinatingly technical as Mastodon been reduced to “heavy pop” chock full of hooks, all-too-clean production and little in the way of memorable tracks? “Black Tongue” and “Curl of the Burl,” the two singles from The Hunter, are cheesy, hook-reliant, classic-metal-influenced tunes, and even with the occasional cool riff or two, they are definitely a bummer, making you yearn for the early days of the band. Luckily, after the one-two punch of singles, things improve slightly with the great combo of “Blasteroid,” “Stargasm” and “Octopus Has No Friends,” three of the best titles Mastodon have come up with. “Blasteroid” opens right away with an immediate and fun riff, great harmonies, some Brent Hinds shrieking for good measure and more fantastic drumming. “Stargasm” brings back some spacier elements from Crack The Skye, and definitely would not sound out of place on it. Plenty of chunky riffs soon follow, and a tense, atmospheric soundscape is created, all while Hinds and Sanders declare “you’re on fire” in perfect harmony.
“Octopus” starts out with a disorienting bluegrass-influenced lick that is heard throughout the track, more wonderful clean vocals and an equally-wonderful chorus. This song, like most of the others on the album, also suffers from the aforementioned “cut and paste” that has plagued a lot of weaker Mastodon tracks. Up next is “All the Heavy Lifting,” sounding a bit more like Blood Mountain-era Mastodon. Riffs that can’t be stopped, bleak lyrical content, furious vocal delivery and the ability to manage to sneak a few hooks in there redeem the song, but here is where the fun ends. “The Hunter,” the album’s title track, is a slow-burner, an attempt at replicating some of the best mellow moments of Crack The Skye that ultimately comes off as “already done.” The solo in the song is great, though it’s hard to find a Mastodon song without a great guitar solo. A veteran band of metal heroes such as this one will surely always have impressive technical ability. “Dry Bone Valley” and “Thickening” offer up some usual, expected fare for Mastodon. Though not really including anything TOO bad, they can be lumped in with some of the more forgettable moments of the album.
“Creature Lives” is another song that drummer Brann Dailor performs lead vocals on. Unlike “Oblivion,” however, this song is a tad more cringe-worthy. Some cool, melodic bass opens the song, but soon after, it just descends into the cheesy and tame. With “Spectrelight” and “Bedazzled Fingernails’, Mastodon goes back to unstoppable and furious metal. “Spectrelight” includes some fantastic soloing and riffage, as well as another unforgettable Scott Kelly cameo. This rad tune will have you headbanging, guaranteed. “Bedazzled Fingernails” is a lot of fun. Sporting a great solo, huge clean vocals and a spooky, sludgy ending, it’s also one of the highlights on this somewhat uneven album. Closing out the album is “The Sparrow,” a change of pace, though not necessarily the most welcome. Yet another slow-burning number, with interesting production choices, spaced-out vocals, an ace fuzzed-out solo and plenty of mysterious arpeggios, it still falls into the trap of sterile, recycled riffs and “cheap heavy” that this album seems to suffer from.
Overall, I would recommend The Hunter to any new fans that are looking for the most accessible and poppiest tunes Mastodon has written, as well as some interesting production choices, but for longtime fans, stick to the old stuff. Though not terrible, The Hunter is a considerable amount of wasted potential. After Crack The Skye, the sky (no pun intended) was the limit, and they chose to settle. Let’s hope their next one is a return to form.