Crack the Skye

2.5 out of 5 stars

Mastodon has been crushing skulls and shattering eardrums since 1999 with its forward-thinking and genre-bending metal, which incorporates elements from thrash, death and “stoner” metal while using clean, bellowing vocals. The band has gained a startlingly wide audience, enticing even stray metal-phobic listeners to sample its sounds. But it’s likely that Mastodon’s latest release, Crack the Skye, will alienate a large portion of the band’s head-banging loyalists.

On the album, the band has radically changed its musical approach, though not necessarily for the better. Part of the appeal of what will inevitably be remembered as “the old Mastodon” (à la Metallica) was the band’s sophisticated blend of tight songwriting, technical prowess and thrash intensity. The “new” Mastodon has decided to throw about two thirds of that appeal right out the window. Crack the Skye is a long, challenging, slowly paced album that indulges Mastodon’s prog proclivities, sometimes at the expense of visceral thrills and good sense.

“Oblivion” opens the album with a maelstrom of frenetic tom fills and chaotic churning guitars, giving way to a grinding yet melodic verse riff that sputters ahead like a demonic locomotive. The thoroughly old-school opening surges with a winning, muscular vitality. But the sludgy chorus riffs and lazy vocal drawl tinge the song with an alt-rock anonymity, putting a serious damper on the whole affair.

The next track, “Divinations,” is a better prospect for traditional metal-heads, with its neck-snapping pace and lean song structure. Its verses ride on a seesaw thrash riff with sliding power chords, recalling genre mainstays like Megadeth. Vocalist Troy Sanders’s frenzied howling is another throwback to the early days of thrash, but he updates that sound with a keen sense of melody, and never overpowers or sours the track. The bridge solo, boasting squealing pinch harmonics and blazing trills, is just icing on the cake.

“Divinations,” however, is the exception on an otherwise prog-obsessed record. “The Czar,” a nine-minute monolith, is more typical of the collection. Employing bright, shimmering guitar distortion, organs, keyboards and unusual Eastern scales, Mastodon imbues the song with mystery and menace. Somewhat awkwardly, the slow-burn intro explodes into a metal attack. But what cheapens the track is its reliance on generic ’80s Metallica-style riffs (the usual crutch for creatively challenged genre grunts). The aimless anti-climax-of-an-ending leaves a bitter taste in the ear and mouth as well.

After “Czar,” the band seems to have thoroughly rifled through its bag of tricks, and the rest of the album just fizzles. While Mastodon’s new sound is intriguing at first, it loses its mystique — even during the first listen. Crack the Skye feels more like pastiche than progress; it becomes more interesting to pick out the band’s influences than to appreciate the album on its own terms. Mastodon will need to rebound with more immediate, gripping material to keep hold of its fans.

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