Mastodon rips open a Crack in the Skye

A review of Mastodon at House of Blues on May 7, 2009

, Staff Writer

Prog-metal monsters Mastodon’s Thursday night performance at House of Blues was a haunted journey scored by the band’s latest narrative, Crack The Skye.

In front of a screen showing visuals of robed figures casting down spells and white crosses standing desolately in a barren landscape, Brent Hind’s first riffs of “Oblivion” thundered through the hall and set off a chain reaction of excitement that could hardly be contained by anyone in the audience. As haunting images of swirling galaxies and dying Crusaders kneeling in reverence flickered above, Mastodon’s musicianship held everyone spellbound, mystified.&

Astral travel, wormholes, and Russian mystics may not be common subject matter for heavy metal bands these days, but Mastodon are far from a common metal band. On their latest album, Crack The Skye, Mastodon pushes the prog-rock element that began to appear in 2004’s Leviathan to new levels and have created a classic record as a result.

Singer/guitarist Brent Hinds, a towering figure with a fierce forehead tattoo and a mop of unruly blonde locks, does a little more singing than he used to, his harsh screeches offset by bassist Troy Sanders guttural roar in a combination that perfectly compliments the ferocity of the music. Both Hinds and Bill Kelliher are brilliant guitar players, ripping through incredibly complex time-signature, key-changing riffs in perfect sync while barely breaking a sweat. Drummer Brann Dailor is a heavy metal machine. I swear the guy runs on diesel fuel. At points he dropped into a fast, heavy, double bass for three or four minutes straight, keeping perfect time, all while singing the lead. (Dailor also wrote most of the lyrics to Crack The Skye, which is named for his sister, Skye who committed suicide at age fourteen.)

Crack The Skye is Mastodon’s fourth full-length album and the final chapter in the fire-water-earth-wind tetralogy. The album tells the story of a paraplegic young man who goes too far in his experiments with out-of-body space travel (hate it when that happens). He’s drifting though space, lost and lonely, when he gets sucked into a wormhole and enters the spirit realm (“Oblivion”), who send him, against his will, to a religious cult in tsarist Russia. There he is used in a ritual to send his spirit into Rasputin’s body (“Divinations”). Rasputin gets killed for trying to usurp the tsar, both spirits leave Rasputin’s body ("Crack The Skye"), and they fly through space on a mission to return the boy’s soul to his body. In the meantime, the boy’s parents have discovered his lifeless body, adding urgency to their mission. Oh yea, they run into the Devil at some point along the way and he tries to steal their souls and drag them down to hell. Got it? Good.&

The plot may be a little loose and confusing (and the video playing the background on Thursday didn’t do much to bring sense to the mix) but subject matter takes a second seat to musicianship, and Mastodon is a collection of exceptional musicians whose sum is greater than its parts. Built on monstrous riffs and crazy metal shredding, Crack The Skye is a soaring musical journey that delves deep into Mastodon’s heavy metal roots and incorporates elements of classic rock, country, and a heavy dose of prog-rock – lots of acid and Yes albums for these guys. “Divinations” opens with a speedy banjo lick and bursts into a headbanging scorcher, while “Quintessence” is a steady, psychedelic jam. The four-part “The Czar” is an epic ten minutes of insanity, and the final piece, “The Last Baron”, contains an absolutely breathtaking guitar breakdown that Hinds and Kelliher fucking nailed. It was one of those moments you know you’re in the presence of greatness.&

After barely any break, the second set was louder and faster than the first. Featuring older material, things got really intense on the floor during “Colony of Birchmen” and “Sea Beast”. A standout for the Mastodon faithful was “March of the Fire Ants” from 2002’s Remission. After the visual and musical journey of the first set, set #2 brought the night to a close with a performance that echoed in my head for a day. The ingenuity and virtuosity of Mastodon’s music and the sheer scope and magnitude of their ability were apparent in a performance from this band pushing the boundaries of metal.

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