Mastodon - Crack the Skye (Warner Bros. / Relapse)
The prolific Atlanta prog metal quartet are back, dare I say better than ever. With 2006's Blood Mountain, they proved that they could make the shift to a major label without watering down either their heaviness or their inherent weirdness. Here, with their grandiose concept disc Crack the Skye, they convincingly demonstrate an ability to dabble even further in the realm of melodic vocal deliveries, slow and moody song structures and even the nemesis of many a heavy metal fan - synths (courtesy of unofficial fifth member Rich Morris)!
Even back in their ultra-growly, take-no-prisoners ubermetal days, the band was oft likened to a beefier version of Rush. To take that comparison to heart, then this release would have to be their 2112. It's their best material since 2002's brutal Remission, mainly because it offers a solid counterpart to that album's unbridled sonic fury - rife with inward-peering soul searching and deeply personal source material. It seems that Mastodon have done their fair share of maturing over the past few years.
The opening track Oblivion is my favorite so far, setting up the basic story of the album while chugging along with a potent intensity. This locomotive energy is balanced by a yearning, hook-laden chorus and later some very Floydian guitar solo work courtesy of lead guitarist Brent Hinds. Drummer Brann Dailor even sings lead during the verses, cementing the band's attitude toward vocals as somewhat similar to that of Queens of the Stone Age - the band ultimately has no "main" singer. Whoever can do the job best is welcome to step up to the plate.
The band's accent on harsh vocals have also been steadily dialed down since 2004's Leviathan, as bassist Troy Sanders has slowly become less of an official front man while the music has grown to feature more of Hinds' mellower deliveries. Here, now with three singers bouncing pipes duties back and forth (often within the same song), the band benefits from a fantastic harmonic ability heretofore only hinted at. Even main growler Sanders has grown as a singer, delivering surprisingly clean sounding refrains here and there.
Like much of Rush's earlier material, there is an accent on long songs. Crack the Skye has only seven tracks total, two of which surpass the ten-minute mark. The Czar even features four distinct, separately titled movements, the first of which featuring a very 70's prog-influenced keyboard motif. The album's closing track, The Last Baron, is an accidental epic that shifts from a mournful main theme into a jazz influenced math-metal break before mutating even further into a shockingly funky jam dominated by chunky guitar riffs laden with escalating harmonics.
The shorter tunes are likewise no slouches in terms of variation. Divinations begins with Hinds on banjo before evolving into noodly, finger picked guitar piece. A Dick Dale-style surf riff then explodes from the speakers shortly thereafter. Quintessence again delves into usage of mood-enhancing keyboards, as well as sound effects that repeatedly fool me into believing that my cell phone is ringing.
Ghost of Karelia seemingly takes the intro riff to Iron Maiden's Wasted Years and twists it into pure Mastodon, complete with odd time signatures and unyielding, schizophrenic guitar playing. The title track is perhaps the heaviest, dropping some unexpectedly doomy riffs into the playing field. They sludge and trudge along with darkened mystery while Dailor provides balance with perpetual double bass drumming.
This penchant for juxtaposition is one of the band's strongest suits, and is used notably throughout the album. When the guitar lines are tremolo-picked speed juggernauts, Dailor can feel free to tone down the drums and settle into a steady groove. When the rest of the band is cruising slow and steady, the drums will then evolve into a whirling dervish of fleet-footed percussive accompaniment. In either case, you can always count on Dailor to deliver some remarkably tasty fills loaded with frenetic invention.
Perhaps the most surprising element of Mastodon's sudden shift into seriousness is that is mainly derives from the band's two class clowns - drummer Dailor and guitarist/vocalist/banjoist Hinds. Dailor leant a strong creative hand to this album's concept, creating a vivid tale of a paraplegic trapped in the ether after an astral trip gone awry. Eventually his disembodied spirit comes into contact with ancient Russian mystics, and the historically notorious "mad monk" Grigori Rasputin decides to help the lost soul whilst simultaneously attempting to usurp the current Tsar's throne. And then supposedly Satan shows up. It's wild stuff.
A lot of this insanity is metaphor for the band's more mundane adventures, such as the loneliness of relentless touring. There's also a strong pall of grief hanging over the disc, since it's largely inspired by the memory of Dailor's sister Skye and her death at a tragically young age. The behind-the-scenes DVD accompanying the deluxe edition shows a markedly different Mastodon. I'm used to seeing their home videos loaded with laughs and gags, but here there's a somber element that's hard to ignore. Many of the interviews are surprisingly personal and, at times, uncomfortably honest.
The other huge influence on the sound of this release was the near-fatal head trauma suffered by Hinds following a street altercation at the MTV Video Music Awards. Crack The Skye's increased accent on melody is said to have been an organic outgrowth of Hinds' injury, and the result is some of his best guitar playing to date. He still dabbles in perky, country-tinged finger picking, but his bendy, soulful solos now contain a haunting, occasionally sorrowful aspect.
It's impressive to think on how far these guys have come over the past decade. I remember reading an interview with them in Terrorizer magazine around the Remission era, and at the time they commented on the necessity to keep working their day jobs. Now, they're financially free to experiment in the studio with mega-expensive vintage equipment (Hinds likes tinkering with purple Marshall tube amps, Dailor digs playing old school snare drums and Sanders lavishes love on his newly purchased Moog Taurus foot-pedal bass synth - the same used by Rush front man Geddy Lee). As evidenced by the 'making-of' DVD, they also clearly have enough scratch to purchase decent houses and amass sizable personal collections of memorabilia (rhythm guitarist Bill Kelliher collects Star Wars toys while Hinds accumulates Creature of the Black Lagoon merchandise).
Luckily, the guys' down to earth attitudes allow them to implement this monetary freedom without falling into a mire of wasteful studio wankery and self-indulgent bombast. Perhaps it's a tribute to producer Brendan O'Brien's (Korn / Matthew Sweet) capacity to reel in the madness, but it seems that these guys can somehow inherently keep their heads level while romping through a wonderland of gadgetry and equipment. And it certainly 'shows' when listening to the final product - all of the money and effort put into the project is well represented when the end-user experiences its expansive, richly detailed sonic majesty.
As always the album's packaging is a classy affair, adorned with the intricate art of Paul Romano. This much-requested designer has gone a long way to maintain a consistent visual style for the band, complete with individual logos for each of their albums. I also recommend picking up the deluxe edition for the accompanying DVD, which contains a photo gallery and nearly an hour and a half of behind-the-scenes material and band commentary.
While much of this material only underlines what I had already instinctually gathered from listening to the music itself, there's also plenty of useful insight, particularly regarding the band's serious personal issues and the imaginative conceptual storyline that was ultimately inspired by them. Crack the Skye certainly fits like a glove on first listen, but by the fortieth listen it could also quite possibly become your favorite glove.
Get Thrashed - The Story of Thrash Metal (Warner Bros. DVD)
I had been dying to see this music documentary since it started making the festival rounds, and now it's finally available to purchase on DVD. In the wake of Sam Dunn's comprehensive hit Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (also recommended), comes this more narrowly focused visual essay on the particular metal genre known as thrash.
Most of the attention is lavished on the fabled "Big Four" bands of the scene - Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer, though secondary-tier bands are given coverage as well. This narration-less piece delivers new interviews with a ton of thrash luminaries and notable journalists, label heads and deejays. This modern footage is balanced with a hefty dose of vintage video footage, most of which comes from one fan's private collection.
Die-hard thrashers and casual music listeners should be equally captivated by this film, which details the primarily West-Coast rise to power of thrash and some bands' eventual absorption into the mainstream. Even more fascinating are the countless tales of the never-say-die also-rans, bands who never seem to give up their riffs and ideals despite an ever-elusive "success". Also documented are segments discussing the general attitude and outlook of the fans, the notorious violence at live shows, and how the genre is making a comeback amongst young musicians who in some cases weren't born when the original wave was booming.
The extras on the DVD are a special treat that will delight any thrash metal uber-nerd, since an interactive global map allows the viewer to access additional video featurettes covering just about every band imaginable. So if you (like me) shouted at the screen "Ha! You forgot about Atrophy from Arizona!", you'll be sorely disappointed (and equally delighted) to find that the filmmakers (director Rick Ernst and producer, ex-Overkill drummer Rat Skates) were multiple steps ahead of you. Unfortunately, it would probably cost a zillion dollars to clear the music rights for these extra supplements, so while there is tons of vintage video on display you won't be hearing any of these bands' tunes.
My only real complaint is that while scene faves (and the utter personification of thrash metal) Exodus garner much-merited attention during the main feature, similarly vital seminal thrashers such as Testament and Overkill are relegated to the 'bonus bin'. Video and audio quality obviously varies, due to the ancient nature of some footage, but this is still clearly a release worthy of cranking up to ear-bleeding levels. So put on your old sleeveless, patch-covered denim jacket and your high tops while thrashing around in the pit. If there is no mosh pit, start one in your living room
Program Guide, 2009