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Some people I know were sort of surprised (and some other very disappointed) by Mastodon's choice of leaving their old prog-metal sound behind in favor of a more unconventional ambient-prog-psychedelic hard-rock sound. Some of 'em were either expecting a new "Blood Mountain" or a "Leviathan Pt.II", thinking perhaps that Mastodon couldn't get any better than that. Wrong.
The highest point a musician can reach, in my opinion, is being able to keep your art alive and make amazing music every time while not being bound to genre restrictions of any sort. For a good musician, being tied to one genre is like refusing to evolve and denying your skills to evolve. It's like living your life in fear of what's outside your own house and never going out for a walk. In many interviews that came out prior to the release of "Crack The Skye", the Mastodon's guys had been talking about their new album being much more 70's-prog-rock-oriented than its predecessors and how they wanted it to sound like something off the old Canterbury scene. Well, either you were prepared or not for the result, I think they fully achieved their goal. "Crack The Skye" sounds exactly like something that Genesis, or King Crimson, or Pink Floyd would have pulled off if they decided to make a metal album. It's like a Mastodon album played by one of those bands. Or the other way around.
Even though the album starts with a slightly down-tuned guitar arpeggio that could have easily introduced a Machine Head song, as soon as the first sung verse from the first song, "Oblivion", kicks in you notice how mature these guys have become and how much further they dared to push their art. Brann Dailor (the drummer) sings the verses, and it stupefied me how cool his voice sounds and how good a singer he really is. Then Troy Sanders hops in with the bridge and Brent Hinds follows singing the chorus. Now, this song is the perfect example of where this album goes, of what Mastodon wants to convey, lyrically and vocally speaking. A new, uncharted territory unfolds before your eyes, the greatness of the sounds of the guitars and drums, the somehow AliceInChain-esque feel that permeates the entire composition give you the chance to forget about what you were expecting this album to be, letting you immediately recognize that this is Mastodon, but at the same time giving you a clear, undeniable warning that this might take you where you weren't expecting to be taken.
So, fasten your seatbelts, the first and last real rocker of the album, the single "Divinations" (with the silly video related to it) speeds things up for about 4 minutes only to give way to the "real" album. From track 3, "Quintessence", the band stops being the Mastodon you used to know and does it for good. Here the experimentation begins. This song, the haunting 4-part suite "The Czar", the Metallica-influenced "Ghost Of Karelia", the awe-inspiring, ground-cracking title track (growled in almost its entirety and with the usual fiery force by Neurosis' Scott Kelly) are all absolutely great, overwhelming. They all stick in your mind leaving you asking for more, without necessarily having any hooks or anything. Actually, the lack of hooks and catchy stuff in this album is its strongest point in favour, since this makes its musical and lyrical concept flow much better than in their previous albums and, in the end, after a couple of listens, it will stick in your head (that is, if your head is prepared to receive it) as a whole great piece of amazing music, and not merely a collection of good songs. Every song flows into the next like a canoe trip on an angry river going through rapids all the time.
And still, the best has yet to come! Because, I think, Mastodon were smart enough to leave their best song as the last track on the album. "The Last Baron" has everything you can ask to a progressive metal song: an eerie atmosphere that never lets go of you, crafted masterfully by the whole band through echoes of psychedelia-evoking arpeggios and beautiful singing opposed to more intricated and tangled-up proggy parts, until the song's climax explodes, in a Rush-y kind of way, in a frantic flurry of notes and blows that chase each other with no breaks or breath-catching pauses.
A real masterpiece, in my opinion, this song is destined to become a standard, something to look up to in progressive music. Whenever you're wondering what real progressive music should sound like, you should listen to this. Just like this whole album is a complete fucking monster, something that will remind us all, for years to come, that in the years 2000's metal bands can still write real music, real songs and give their audiences real emotions like Metallica used to do back when they were good. So I can say here, now, subjectively and with the utmost confidence that this album is destined to be the best metal album for a looooong time to come, and it will have deserve it because it's a MASTERPIECE from start to finish. It's that simple.