Sunday, 22 November 2009

My album of 2009

When you think of the term 'progressive metal' what comes to mind? unconventional guitar signatures? To many Tool have long been considered to be at the top of the mountain of prog metal but now, 4 albums later and 10 years in the making, one band has well and firmly laid its claim to the crown. And that band is Atlanta's Mastodon.

Mastodon first came to prominence in 2002 with their debut 'Remission', an aggressive release that contained enough sludgy riffs to keep the head-banging crowd happy as well as aspiring technical musicians. But that was just the groundwork.

After crashing onto the rock radar with 2004's sophomore release Leviathan, a concept album based on the novel 'Moby Dick' a tidlewave of 'album of the year' awards were thrusted upon it, beating out stiff competition from several major releases that same year. When 2006's Blood Mountain was unleashed, their second straight concept album, the praise continued (Including a Grammy nomination for 'Colony of Birchmen'). Ironically this is a band that progress musically with each release, avoiding repetition at all costs.

And so comes their third straight concept album (their fourth studio album overall). When news broke that Mastodon would be working with producer Brendan O'Brien accusations of selling out were thrown their way by their shocked fan base. Luckily for the fans Mastodon has never sounded this far from the mainstream ever before. Unconventional is possibly the only word that can be used to describe Crack The Skye, as the only phrase I can find to describe it is f*****g brilliant. The bar has never been raised this high as Mastodon have indeed taken an even big risk then ever before.

Consisting of just seven songs Crack The Skye spans an impressive 50 minutes. So it is with no surprise that 2 of these songs exceed the 10 minute mark. The whole concept in general is made up from various dreams that the band have had (as well as a few visions involving certain hallucinogens if rumour is believed) as well as drawing from Stephen Hawking's wormhole theories and an alternative Tsarist Russia. With this record a much cleaner sound has been produced when compared to the heaviness of past songs 'March of the Fire Ants' and 'Blood and Thunder' drawing from 1970's progressive rock as a whole rather than focusing more on metal.

Opening track Oblivion begins the story of a paraplegic who experiments with astra travel by going into space, with only a golden umbilical cord keeping him from straying. Such an unusual concept wouldn't transcend so well if it wasn't backed up by the most beautiful musicianship ever heard. Brent Hinds' guitar solo's are as epic as ever, almost putting you in the perspective of their paraplegic as he floats through space. 'Oblivion' also showcases the impressive debut vocals of drummer Brann Dailor, who named the album after his sister who tragicly committed suicide when he was 14.

Other odd inclusions are the use of a Deliverance-lite banjo riff at the beginning of 'Divinations' which kicks into a frenzy of hard hitting riffs. If it was released on Rock Band there'd be a lot of broken plastic guitars out there. The defining moment of Crack the Skye has to be the 11 minute opus 'The Czar'. Layer upon layer of keyboards and guitars demonstrate Mastodon's determination for their craft. Split into four parts ("Usurper", "Escape", "Martyr" and "Spiral") it continues the story of the paraplegic now in the body of the Russian priest Rasputin. It is important not to take this as historically accurate but as mere fantasy (in the way Tarantino portrayed Nazi Germany in Inglourious Basterds).

Ending on a high note with 'The Last Baron', the longest song on the album at 13 minutes, the influences can be heard furiously (listen for the cheeky Rush inspired homage halfway through) no other album has been as important in 2009 as Crack The Skye. It is an album you can not only lose yourself listening to but it is one that deserves to be embraced. If this is only a taster of what we can expect from Mastodon in the near future then I can't wait to hear what they have left in their arsenal.

Best songs: Oblivion, Divinations, Quintessence, The Czar

Crack The Skye is available from Amazon

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