Flying Beyond the Sun: Mastodon’s Crack the Skye
Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor considers Genesis’ 1974 concept record The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway to be his favorite album of all time (Note: a few years ago I had to go to the Macintosh Genius Bar to have disc 2 of Lamb extracted from my broken CD drive). Dailor must be incredibly proud of his band’s new album Crack the Skye, because it sounds spiritually infused with the weird magic of 70s-era Genesis. I don’t mean to discourage anti-prog folks from checking it out – the Mastodonian elements are all still firmly in place, namely their densely-woven guitar arpeggios and spectacular how-the-hell-does-he-do-that-and-and-still-keep-time drumming. Maybe their major label production budget and big-time producer Brendan O’Brien (Rage Against the Machine, Pearl Jam, recent Springsteen) gave them the confidence to temper their more chaotic impulses – Dailor’s drums aren’t quite as frantic, and the flashy look-ma-ten-hands overlapping lead guitar of Leviathan and Blood Mountain is downplayed in favor of mellower, Queens of the Stone Age-esque atmospheric passages – but all this is an important and necessary step for the forward-thinking metal band because for the first time they’ve written an entire album where the music has to support…
In every song.
There are still a few gruff, raw-throated passages delivered by the band’s primary singers (Bassist Troy Sanders, Guitarist Brent Hinds), but most of the screaming is gone, replaced by trippy, effects-laden melody lines and – yes – harmonies. What’s so cool about the way they’ve layered the vocal tracks (props to O’Brien) is that it sounds like they kept multiple takes on the record like an under-painting of sorts. Rather than sit with a piano practicing harmony lines like a band with technically “better” singers might do, they created multi-part vocals with a combination of courageous, emotional singing and a bevy of reverb-drenched effects that give them an endless range of voices, some of them creepy and unsettling. This is where the 70s Genesis influence really becomes apparent: like Peter Gabriel, the singers in Mastodon have a fondness for shifting inflections and styles in the course of a single album.
Oh yeah, one song (Divinations) begins with banjo plucking.
There’s a concept behind all this, too, and it’s summarized in the liner notes. Astral projection, Rasputin, that kind of thing. The lyrics to the songs actually do seem to support this, but it doesn’t really matter beyond the added psychedelic tinges. I suggest listening to this in the dark, right before bed, then sleeping with a keyboard and some home recording equipment. Then when you wake up, you’ll probably find that you’ve composed a series of dissonant pieces for the string quartet.
What’s so incredible is how natural this whole thing sounds. Even when they’re experimenting, Mastodon still manages to sound like four dudes who have been touring nonstop and playing guitar, drums and bass with each other every day for ten years. They genuinely rock, and all the major label success and prog-rock indulgence in the world can’t change that.
Listening party, anyone?