Saturday, May 4, 2013

MAINSTREAM EXTINCTION IV: Mastodon - Crack the Skye


I... I don't know what happened here.  I really don't.  Blood Mountain was a testament to what modern metal could be (I still don't know what to call Mastodon's style, so "modern metal" is just gonna have to be the big catch-all until I think of an appropriate title), and while each successive Mastodon release got a little bit less heavy (nothing was going to top the sheer weight of Remission, as flawed as the album may be), they were inventive and interesting and, most importantly, fantastic songwriters.  They could take all these elements I'd normally abhor and somehow craft very infectious and memorable tunes around them.  I really admired that ability, and no amount of overexposure or radio play is going to make me enjoy Blood Mountain or Leviathan less.

But the truth is, when Crack the Skye first came out, it pissed me off so much that I didn't listen to Mastodon at all for nearly four years.  From the release date of this fourth album until the day I started this series, I didn't intentionally listen to a single note from this band.

Yes, Crack the Skye is really that fucking bad.  All the kind of eccentric proggy elements I wasn't fond of but could appreciate how they made them blend with everything else before have taken center stage, and instead of aggressive barnburners and strong, catchy melodies and choruses, we are now inundated with long, spacy prog jams, and endless slow tapping melodies and 100% Mudvayne vocals.  It blows my mind how they could have spent their first three albums constantly refining their sound, perfecting the little details and carving out their own specific niche, just to reach this point and go "You know what?  Fuck all that, we want a more intelligent audience, so let's just drop the heavy influences we have and instead focus on Genesis and Dream Theater and the light Opeth songs".  I'm not crying because they changed (hell, every previous album was distinctly different from its predecessor), I'm crying because the change they made sucks like a turbocharged hoover

This reminds me a lot of what happened with Norwegian black metal hellions, 1349, with their fourth album (released two months after this here), Revelations of the Black Flame.  Both bands had started off pretty raw and unrefined and then nailed their particular sound on their third albums, and then for their fourth had apparently just decided that they needed a change and completely abandoned what they were good at.  1349 did not play to their strengths by abandoning the frantically brutal and straightforward black metal and instead focusing on ambient, and Mastodon did not play to their strengths by abandoning the punchy heaviness and strong, hardnosed aggression and melody by instead focusing on longwinded and melodic prog rock.  Mastodon taking a huge influence from Pink Floyd and King Crimson seems interesting at first, but when you actually hear it in action it just ends up horrendously depressing.  A band as frantic and energetic as this just doesn't translate well to this laid back style of songwriting.  The band never lets loose like they're so good at doing, and even Durgha spends all of his time in the background just giving very simple backing beats as opposed to the nigh endless showboating he's so well known for.

So the flair is toned down and it's a lot less showy, that doesn't necessarily mean it's inherently bad, right?  Most of the time, sure, but here it's proven pretty early on that when Mastodon wanders outside of their established home base, they just end up lost and confused and have no idea what in the hell they're doing.  All seven tracks here just kind of meander about without much cohesion between the individual instruments or the vocals.  And oh yeah, the vocals are at their all time worst at this point.  Not only is the Mudvayne voice the only real vocal lead (I still don't know which member sounds like individually, sue me, they're all similar), but it's also more nasally than ever before.  It's like he has a dastardly head cold that they couldn't wait to heal because they'd already booked the studio time.  The perplexingly popular "Oblivion" is a perfect showcase for such an issue, as that damn chorus repeats itself seemingly dozens of times, and his voice just grates and grates and grates and oh god make him stop Jesus Christ it's making my liver hurt somehow.  The vocals usually just drone over the top of whatever flittery psychedelic passages are noodling around in the background, and it just lacks any semblance of memorability throughout the runtime of the entire album.  It's bewildering, one of the band's main strengths in the past was writing the catchiest songs they could while using abrasive and seemingly incompatible elements, and yet here they focused on one style and managed to cock it up all-encompassingly.  Mastodon is not Pink Floyd, they can't write songs like this and make them work.  They tried, I can say they really obviously put their hearts into this album and I can appreciate such a personal and heartfelt effort, the problem is that it's totally ineffectual and they just can't get this sound down correctly. 

There are moments that are passable, like the "Let it gooo, LET IT GOOOO" chorus of "Quintessence", and the heavier part near the end of the same track that reminds me of "Capillarian Crest" from the previous album, and there are sections here and there in the way-too-fucking-long-because-we're-actually-a-real-life-prog-band-now-aren't-you-proud-of-us-yet-dad? "The Last Baron".  There's also one woefully short heavy segment about halfway through "Ghosts of Karelia" that works pretty well (probably because it's the most Blood Mountain-y segment on the album), but that's it.  Three or four short sections throughout a fifty minute psychedelic prog rock jam session, and that's an awful average.  Far too much of the album is spent trying to be all spacey and trippy and smart and it just ends up sounding so goddamn phony.  Yeah, I just said that they obviously tried very hard, but I still feel like this is insincere in a way.  To me, there are two ways this album came about; either the band was tired of the Adult Swim crowd they'd garnered and wanted to attract more "intellectual" fans, or they'd just finally reached cosmic levels of drug intake and decided to pay homage to all the pretty colors they'd been tasting for the last few years.  Either way, it was a shitty idea and no amount of genuineness can change that.  

Funnily enough, I feel like the band understood the problems with the album, as there are instrumental versions of each song floating around out there somewhere and they've since released an EP which featured shortened versions of the two needlessly overlong tracks.  Granted, the instrumental tracks were probably more to please the prog nerds/themselves and the abridged EP was probably the label's idea or their attempt to just cave in and please everybody, but either way they at least eliminate two of the bigger problems with the vocals and bad structuring.  But even with those cut out, the album is still flawed on a conceptual level and falls flat on its face straight out of the gate.  It's strange how when they take a bunch of different ideas and try mashing them up, they manage to craft some intense and hooky songs, but the instant they focus on one particular sound, they just completely bomb.  Crack the Skye is a bad experiment, and a terrible progression that just went against everything the band had been building to and working towards.  The laid back style doesn't at all work with the band's chemistry, and the album as a whole ends up sounding paradoxically unfocused and meandering despite being their first attempt to rein in their songwriting to one particular style.  This is honestly offensively bad to the point where I abandoned the band entirely upon first listening to it, and to the shock of nobody, time has not sweetened it.  They had been constantly improving up to this point, and then somehow managed to just wreck it in a fiery hodgepodge of shitty psychedelia and warbly nose-vocals.

RATING - 18%


  1. This is actually the only album from them i like. I couldn't get past the first song the couple other albums of theirs i tried to listen to.

  2. Out of curiosity, what do you think of their single, Deathbound? It was written during the Crack the Skye sessions, but is much more like their material off Leviathan and Remission

    1. It's not bad, but as far as the bonus tracks from The Hunter go, "The Ruiner" blows it out of the water. Though relistening to "Deathbound" now since you've posted it, it's better than I remember. Still, this is the kind of sound that Mastodon is best at, not their weird psychedelic prog-rock adventures.

  3. Out of curiosity, what do you think of their single, Deathbound? It was written during the Crack the Skye sessions, but is much more like their material off Leviathan and Remission