For a band named after a prehistoric elephantlike mammal, Mastodon’s complex metal is anything but outdated. Crack the Skye — the band’s fifth album — shatters the glass ceiling of traditional metal by replacing overused screams with clean, biting vocals. The band has been nothing but forthcoming about their plans to continue to expand their sound — 2004’s Leviathan was a melodic thrasher while Blood Mountain traded speed for hooks, going so far as enlisting Josh Homme of stoner-rock outfit Queens of the Stone Age for guest vocals. For Crack the Skye, Mastodon venture even further into unknown territory, bringing well-known producer Brendan O’Brien (who has worked with Train, Rage Against the Machine, Pearl Jam and Bob Dylan) into the studio.
O’Brien manages to achieve the near impossible by combining the punishing, deep riffs of Mastodon’s thrash tendencies with the band’s tumbling, complex and slower guitar movements. The unity of vision here is spectacular — the album, despite being broken into seven songs, coalesces into a cohesive statement. Rarely do pop bands, let alone heavy metal groups like Mastodon, so competently and effortlessly utilize two lead-vocalists. Throughout Crack the Skye, Brent Hinds’ gritty, nasal whine cascades into the deeper soaring croon of bassist Troy Sanders, endowing the songs with a loud-soft dynamic usually reserved for classic rock. Where the vocals relent, Mastodon’s virtuosic instrumentals move to center stage, effortlessly bending songs from distorted funeral dirges to bright, pounding, Metallica-inspired guitar hooks.
Even Crack the Skye’s lyrics are uncompromisingly ambitious in telling the story of a quadriplegic boy who travels through wormholes to Russia and is martyred along with Rasputin. As though that wasn’t enough, drummer Brann Dailor, who wrote most of the lyrics, has revealed in interviews that the record is meant to address his 14 year-old sister Skye’s suicide when they were teenagers.
Musically, the record has little to do with suicide. Mastodon have reimagined the limits of heavy metal music, giving a genre that always seems dangerously close to killing itself with repetition a whole new reason to feel alive.