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CD review: MASTODON, "Crack the Skye"

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Now that hipsters, non-metal rock fans, ERIC CLAPTON's label, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN's producer and mainstream publications have caught on, you no longer need underground metal fans to tell you how much MASTODON rules. But what makes Mastodon exceptional is that they haven't watered down their sound at all to get this far–rather, they've been developing as songwriters and musicians more than any major label metal act in recent history. Crack the Skye is probably their most experimental and most traditional album yet, a step forward for progressive metal and an early frontrunner in the album of the year race.

Crack the Skye would probably still rock if Mastodon were running the Remission formula into the ground, but they've branched out at their own risk to conquer a few more metal touchstones. The first single "Divinations" fries a banjo intro into a KYUSS-worthy riff narrated by BRENT HINDS' increasingly OZZY-like banshee wail, resulting in as forceful and concise a song as they've recorded. "Concise" isn't usually a word saved for albums with two songs over 10 minutes, but even the four-part "The Czar" and the towering closer "The Last Baron" don't feel a second too long. Many metal bands fall victim to the self-conscious epic (how many 10-minute metal songs do you really listen to?), but Mastodon's epics are natural beasts that can't imaginably be confined to anything shorter. The relatively short songs, like the foreboding opener "Oblivion" and the raging "Quintessence" pack enough progressions to dazzle KING CRIMSON fans, and the melodic title track might has a psychedelic tint that barely squelches the the chorus' hit potential. Mastodon are threating to play the whole album live on their upcoming tour, and I certainly hope that they do.

Crack the Skye may be a new direction for Mastodon, but much of it plays like porn for metal history buffs. Fans of '70s arena rock, underground sludge metal and thrash will have a blast hearing Mastodon kick the asses of bands who specialized in all those genres, whether giving props to "Holy Diver" in "The Czar" or shouting NEUROSIS' praises in "Ghosts of Karelia." Relapse-devotees might gripe that it's Mastodon's least-metal album to date, but but dismissing the prog, classic rock and alternative turns on Crack the Skye would be to pigeonhole metal overall and ignore some of it's best and most inventive music. This isn't metal because it has death grunts and blast beats, this is metal because it's heavy, boundary-pushing music with more attitude than most people can handle.

At this point in their careers, METALLICA (…And Justice for All) and the best-known PANTERA incarnation (The Great Southern Trendkill) had already established themselves to underground metal fans and were moving on to bigger, harder and more demanding music. Mastodon clearly have similarly huge ambitions, and four albums into their career, mentioning them in the same breath as some of the greats doesn't seem entirely absurd.

Four syringes out of five

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