Mastodon’s stature in American metal is unmatched; only Isis even plays the same game. Both bands trade in tectonic riffs that recall thrash and sludge pioneers of the late-‘80s metal underground, but they’re equally as attentive to the melodic dimensions of their sound. Both bands also match their proggy fretwork with similarly mind-bending lyrical themes, and in the last decade, the two great practitioners of experimental metal have worked on similar trajectories: an auspicious breakthrough in 2002 (Mastodon’s Remission and Isis’s Oceanic), a highly conceptual follow-up (the Melvillean metal of Leviathan, the postmodern paranoia of Panopticon), and a 2006 release that pushed the group’s sonics to even stranger frontiers (Blood Mountain and In the Absence of Truth). Laid out as such, the argument for Mastodon’s superiority makes itself: Isis’s Oceanic was more fully realized than Remission, but Leviathan and Blood Mountain far surpass their counterparts in compositional dexterity and uncompromising force. Whereas Isis has been content to refine their Neurosis-by-way-of-Slint post-metal, Mastodon seems committed to never make the same album twice. Every time out, their sphere of influences expands and their progressive tendencies develop in new directions.
Crack the Skye makes it clear that those first three releases, landmarks that they were, did not exhaust Mastodon’s creative energies. The new album is just as monstrous, but perhaps more uncannily realized: Visionary and complex, nearly lost in its own labyrinth, with vocals that disorient as much as they hook, it revels in its thematic strangeness—astral projection, quantum physics, Russian history, suicide, spiritualism, occultism—and a recurrent motif of transcendence which oddly opposes the sludgy weight of the music. It is their densest and most eclectic work yet, and a worthy finale to a decade in which the band has proven itself peerless.
Crack the Skye presents a stunningly original fusion of sounds. Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher conjure a psychedelic morass of guitars that chime like Rush, smother like stoned Sabbath, and do chainsaw thrash like Neurosis. Arpeggios run in tandem with storming riff-runs, and if that sounds intimidating then you should also know that the band’s melodies have never been sharper. Hinds and Kelliher make ample use of harmony, and occasionally slow down the action to wrench out searing solos that owe as much to Thin Lizzy as they do to Pantera.
Without skimping at all on the jazz-thrash drum assault that has become his calling card, Brann Dailor joins Hinds and bassist Troy Sanders on vocals throughout. The three alternate and overlap with bellows, moans, and mind-flaying screeches, but there’s also a surprising amount of clean singing. Sanders has developed a vocal style that is technically simple, but soulful and expressive, reminiscent of Ozzy Osbourne. He employs it to great effect on the chorus to “Oblivion” and in the twisting bridges of “The Last Baron.” Elsewhere, though, the vocals are dissonant and syrupy, doing less to soften the onslaught than to add to the overwhelming sonic density.
To be certain, this is not an album that discloses its full power upon first listen, or even in the first four or five. Blood Mountain began with the half-time thrash of “The Wolf Is Loose, and by contrast, Skye begins dirge-like with “Oblivion,” slowly layering instruments and gaining momentum. “Dominion” delivers jackhammer riffs, but without departing from the textured psychedelia of the opener. In terms of back catalog, the obvious antecedents are tracks like “Sleeping Giant,” “Siberian Divide,” and “Hearts Alive.” But the generally slower tempo suits the complex material well: played faster, it’d be impossible to take in. And some of the album’s best rewards come in the details. Through all of the heavy metal theatrics, it is the band’s affinity for harmony and subtle melodicism that elevates Skye over heavier exercises in drop-tuned brutality.
The album’s centerpiece is “The Czar,” a terrific showcase for Mastodon’s multifaceted racket, complete with keyboard dubs and mournful singing that seems to dissolve in and out of the backing noise. As impressive an accomplishment as it is, Mastodon outdoes their epic elsewhere. “Quintessence” contains some of the album’s most intricate guitar work, plus singing that is both guttural and undeniably melodic. It culminates in a torrent of wails and bellows, guitar, and human voice interpenetrating into cosmic sludge before giving way to an alien synth coda. Daunting stuff, but the sonic impact is tremendous. Closer “Last Baron” spares nothing, with classic rock riffs, bazooka drumbeats, and spiraling guitar leads all competing with Sanders’s martial bark. The brimstone soloing that ends the track can only be the sound of Hinds and Kelliher ascending to the guitar god pantheon.