There’s a moment at 4:07 into ‘The Czar’, a ten-plus-minute song off of Atlanta metal monsters MASTODON’s new disc, Crack The Skye (shockingly, not the only ten-plus-minute song on the album), where it becomes apparent the band has arrived. Because for 21 seconds, they put aside all the progressive tendencies and the maniacal metal they’re known for and lay down a fat fucking groove that sounds like a Bark At The Moon outtake. It’s simple, it’s in 4/4 time and it’s probably my favourite 21 seconds of music released this year. It’s confident, and it’s just to say, “We can.” Because then they bust into the crazy shit again.
And yes, the rest of the album rules. It consists of only seven songs but they’re jam-packed with the myriad twists and turns people have come to expect from the juggernauts. The set of songs reference perennial tour mates SLAYER, perennial influencers THIN LIZZY and perennial dorks GENESIS and YES in equal doses. It’s different from their past output in a few ways, and mainly it sounds like a solid, cohesive whole that a lot of work went into.
“Yeah, we were prepared,” says guitarist Bill Kelliher. “We had a year off, went our separate ways, got away from each other for a minute, pooled some ideas together, and started working really hard. I went out and got some ProTools for my laptop, started dumping riffs into it. We got some nice microphones for our little practice space, we started recording rehearsals, switching stuff around, so by the time we got into the studio with Brendan, we had everything under our belt, pretty well.”
The Brendan Bill speaks of is Brendan O’Brien, noted producer of bands like AC/DC, VELVET REVOLVER, PEARL JAM and BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN. Not exactly Erik Rutan (but man, O’Brien does get a good trebly cymbal-heavy noise out of Springsteen, and he does a great job with Mastodon too), O’Brien is one of many signs that these guys have come a long way from their Relapse Records roots.
“Working with Brendan was a total pleasure, man,” says Kelliher. “He was such a great guy. Like I said, by the time we got in there we knew exactly what we were getting into, we know what songs we were doing, what riffs we were playing, we kind of had a better idea of what vocals we were going to do. He really helped us out in shaping a lot of the songs to make them as best as they could possibly be with what we had. It was a really simple, easy process, really. It made recording fun again, for me.”
The seven song disc has a nice flow to it, with both individual song and album as a whole ebbing and flowing and concluding nicely, something which isn’t lost on Kelliher and the boys.
“Yeah, the songs, like I said, flow really well together,” he says. “We’ve kind of honed our skills at writing and playing together and the storytelling aspect of the whole thing and the artwork behind it. It all came together really well, and it shows. We really worked hard for that year-and-a-half we had to reconsider what we’re doing. After Brent (Hinds – guitarist) was in the hospital, we thought, ‘OK, do we keep going, or does the band break up now? What happens?’ We persevered and we kept plugging ahead.”
Hinds’ hospitalization was the result of a much-reported fight at the MTV Video Music Awards involving him, a member of System Of A Down, another musician, the early hours of the morning and too much booze. Kelliher says he’s not sure if the incident had much of an effect on the album, but it definitely made the band hunker down and play music… because they didn’t really know what else to do with themselves while Hinds was recovering from the near-fatal beating.
“I don’t know; I knew somewhere inside he was going to bounce back,” says Kelliher. “We were a bit vulnerable at the time when it happened. Things were going so good for us and now this happens, so it’s like, ‘What do we do?’ We didn’t know what else to do but pray for him that he’s going to get better and just go down to our practice space and keep jamming, writing and writing, trying to keep our minds off it and just do what we do best—write music together. It all worked out good and he’s better now and we’re on top of our game again. Hopefully once we get back out on the road, everything will solidify again and we’ll move on.”
And move on the band has, to the realm of the seven song full-length; ambitious realms indeed. Without even getting into the completely far-flung conceptual aspect of this album (paraplegics, Czarist Russia and wormholes all play a part), musically, it’s progressive, it’s difficult, it’s far out there. It contains some grooves, but it also contains some anxious, wide-reaching and just far-out-there shit that could well have people throwing their arms up and walking away, confused and a bit frustrated. Well, that’s my take on it, at least.
“I don’t really think that,” counters Kelliher. “You say we’re getting further out there but I think this record is one of our most accessible records. I’m not afraid to push people away for a second to see what they’re going to do, but I don’t think anyone will throw their arms up. I think it makes people even more interested when things get weirder and get more far out there.”
The band’s growing popularity is testimony to the fact that people aren’t walking away, they’re heading to the basement/club/stadium these guys are playing at. And they’re heading there in droves. Perhaps all this talk of the kids of today with their iPods and their short attention spans isn’t all that true, and perhaps the proof is in Mastodon’s pudding, a band who has long championed the album format as art.
“I think there are a lot of bands that don’t think like that anymore and they just put all their efforts into one or two songs and with iTunes, you don’t even need to put out a full record anymore. We were thinking about that before we did this record, we thought about putting out three separate CDs, because everybody really just goes to iTunes and downloads a single and puts it on shuffle.”
“You’ve got to get your life in order—take it off shuffle and remember the power of the LP, the long play,” he continues. “You put it on and listen to one whole side and flip over the record and listen to the whole other side, you look at the artwork, you read the lyrics and you get real deep into it.”
And when you’re reading the lyrics, read along to that singing and prepare to be a bit confused. Because after multiple listens I’m still not sure if there’s any screaming on this disc (probably because, as always, Brann Dailor’s drumming steals my attention throughout most of the album, only to be interrupted now and again by cascading guitar acrobatics and, heck, even impressive bass manipulation). Indeed, almost all of the vocal work eschews the aggressive yelping of discs past and opts for a more melodic, ‘70s prog-rock style.
“We’ve come a long way since back in the screaming days,” says Kelliher. “If you put on the first record to this one, you wouldn’t even think it’s the same band. We’ve just matured and Brendan really brought the most out of the guys as far as using their vocals and singing and really channeling energy into the vocals sounding really, really good. I think the guys are sick of screaming as well. It’s a welcome change to me. I love vocal harmonies and more than one vocal at once; the melodies are great. Everything about it came out really well. We really tried to do that. We really wanted to get the vocals sounding as awesome as they possibly could be. I think we achieved that.”