TEN YEARS ON: Mastodon's 'Crack the Skye'
Mastodon have come very far in their 19 years, since meeting at a High on Fire gig in January 2000. Their super-group status and success is undeniable. And many would agree that it was ‘Crack the Skye’ that put them there.
As an album, it was a massive detour from all that they had done before in the best possible way. From the dark and heavy riff bonanza of ‘Remission’ to über-concept 'Leviathan' to the earth-smashing ‘Blood Mountain’, they sent out hit after hit with professional consistency. And yes, it was the Moby Dick-inspired epic ‘Leviathan' that got their name truly out there and won them journalistic acclaim, winning album of the year with most of the top rock and metal magazines. But truly it was ‘Crack the Skye’ that took them from simple success to festival headliners and true super-group status.
Opening up with the dark and forbidding ‘Oblivion’ that pulls you in, and pulls you more with each bar, 'Divinations' unfolds with classic metal banger feel, showing their true metal credentials but also true musicianship that calls along like last orders at the riff bar. I fall in love with this album more and more with each replay. Rolling into another single, ‘Quintessence’, so many themes are layered through this beautiful, rich and elaborate album. But it's when we hit the fourth track of the album, the 10 minutes and 52 second-long masterpiece ‘The Czar' that we truly see the bigger picture that they were painting.
For at their core, Mastodon have always been storytellers, ‘Crack the Skye‘ being a prime example. The story of a disabled boy, who through magic and mysticism, manages to leave his body and end up in revolutionary Russia. ‘The Czar' is when we finally see references to the infamous Rasputin. Keeping up the theme of magic and mysticism, we move on to ‘Ghost of Keralia', and here we can really see the influence of Scott Kelly of Neurosis (aka the 5th member of Mastodon) who also comes to lend his vocal talents to the title track. Progressive and dark as fuck, an undeniable head banger, a true show of them at their best.
And the weird thing is, I didn't even like it at the time and it wasn't received well by some other fans either. Seeing this a ‘mellowing’ of Mastodon, it is anything but. By their own standards (and those were immensely high after 'Leviathan'), predecessor 'Blood Mountain' had seemingly been striving for something they couldn't quite reach.
Obviously, with the fullness of time, that's a bollocks thing to think, as both 'Blood Mountain' and 'Crack The Skye' are packed with some of the darkest, most complex songwriting of their career and have since proven to be an essential part of their canon. But at the time, my personal anticipation for 'Crack The Skye' underpinned a mix of hope for a return of the soaring anthems like 'Blood And Thunder' and the sheer, breathtaking immensity of 'March Of The Fire Ants'. But most of all, a return to the Relapse days, when they were an underground band with a gritty production and plenty of harsh screaming vocals.
I didn't get that on 'Crack The Skye', but we got a whole lot more. All the essential parts of Mastodon were there: the twin guitar Thin Lizzy harmonies, the complex ever-shifting rhythms that switched lanes at hyperspeed, and the instinctual grasp of a good tune. Aside from that, everything else is fair game. 'Crack The Skye' was simply all these core elements shone through a different prism. It would be unfair to say they matured. They simply show that most over-arching Mastodon trait: the ability to explore their boundaries and evolve themselves anew on every album. This is them at their very core: what are they? Are they stoner metal? Are they progressive? Are they alternative? The answer is yes, because they are all these things. Their music is clever, unbound by traditional genre boundaries while still staying metal at their heart.
And so they did on 'Crack The Skye'. Apropos to their theme of basing almost every album on classical elements, the mystical element of aether and air ties the seven songs of 'Crack The Skye' as they leave this mortal realm and travel into the realms of spirits and souls. Over three thousand days later, from the first ascending notes of 'Oblivion' to the grandiose finale of 'The Last Baron' that I never want to end, 'Crack The Skye' remains one of my favourite albums, showing what music in any genre can and should do. Not even the albums that followed have the themes shown as clearly or with as much dedication. Don't get me wrong, each album are bangers in their own right, but for me this record shows their conceptualism at its pinnacle. It's a journey I return to again and again, finding new layers every time, and (in our humble opinion) a true modern classic.