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The Haul: Mastodon's Crack the Skye and The Twilight Sad's Forget the Night Ahead

I feel dirty buying LPs from Amazon, since I’d much rather support a local record store or a mail-order place like Parasol, but in this particular case it was my only option. After going into home-buying mode and saying goodbye to discretionary spending for a few months, I looked at my credit card reward certificates as the only viable option for a fix.

It’s a little surprise that such a niche product has become regular business on Amazon, but even Best Buy stocks select vinyl nowadays. The music industry recognizes that they can’t afford to ignore any money-making possibility since CD sales continue to decline, so if anything, the vinyl resurgence should continue. I saw the LP for the new Pearl Jam album in Target; is Walmart next?

122. Mastodon – Crack the Skye LP – Reprise, 2009 – $15.49

Mastodon's Crack the Skye LP

I’ve made half-hearted, ultimately failed attempts in the past to get into Mastodon, but I’d read enough tempting descriptions of this album to merit a spin. Moodier than older Mastodon? Sure, I’d like that! Their prog-rock impulses take over? Why, that doesn’t sound too bad. Two epic songs? Yes, sign me up. Put two ten-minute-plus songs on an album and I’ll give it a chance.

All of these factors suggest Crack the Skye is another fringe metal title that appeals to me because of the ways it’s not metal. Faith No More’s equal parts hard rock and metal. Mr. Bungle’s self-titled LP is probably their most metal effort, but its avant-garde, ska, and cartoonish impulses are a huge draw. I didn’t get into Isis until Oceanic, when they let post-rock dynamics surpass Aaron Turner’s gutteral bellow. (Floodwatchmusic, my source of genuine metal criticism, called Isis “snooze metal,” which I can certainly understand from his perspective.) Pelican’s essentially an instrumental version of Isis, drifting further and further away from the doom metal tides of their first EP and Australasia and exposing their drummer’s limitations in the process. Those are the big names in my fringe metal collection.

By all means Crack the Skye waters down the group’s original ferocity—melodic vocals; clean guitars, overt prog-rock references—but I wouldn’t call it fringe metal. Mastodon is too driven by their decidedly prog-metal storyline to be anything but metal. For those unaware of Crack the Skye’s story, here’s Brann Dailor’s description from an interview with Metal Hall eZine:

“There is a paraplegic and the only way that he can go anywhere is if he astral travels. He goes out of his body, into outer space and a bit like Icarus, he goes too close to the sun, burning off the golden umbilical cord that is attached to his solar plexus. So he is in outer space and he is lost, he gets sucked into a wormhole, he ends up in the spirit realm and he talks to spirits telling them that he is not really dead. So they send him to the Russian cult, they use him in a divination and they find out his problem. They decide they are going to help him. They put his soul inside Rasputin's body. Rasputin goes to usurp the czar and he is murdered. The two souls fly out of Rasputin's body through the crack in the sky(e) and Rasputin is the wise man that is trying to lead the child home to his body because his parents have discovered him by now and think that he is dead. Rasputin needs to get him back into his body before it's too late. But they end up running into the Devil along the way and the Devil tries to steal their souls and bring them down…there are some obstacles along the way.”

What Dailor doesn’t mention within that brain-melting recap is how the death of his sister fits in, since she inspired the album title and a few songs have explicit lyrical references to her passing. Without this emotional undercurrent, I suspect Crack the Skye would come off as an impossible-to-follow exercise in astral travel, like a quickly fleeting memory of last night’s dream. Is it possible that the title allows me (or even encourages me) to read more into this connection than Dailor intended? Certainly, but I wouldn’t say that’s a drawback.

Crack the Skye’s biggest challenge is balancing the new and the old: the sung vocals and the guttural incantations, the mid-tempo melodies and the heavy riffs. Opener “Oblivion” has been compared to Alice in Chains in several places, which is telling. Much like Isis moving more toward sung vocals on In the Absence of Truth and overtly sounding like Tool, Mastodon can’t quite control what their less metal vocals reference. That doesn’t mean I necessarily dislike the melodic vocals throughout—Mastodon has a surprising ear for vocal harmonies—but “Crack the Skye” stands out so much because of the guest vocals from Neurosis’ Scott Kelly.

With regard to the riffs, the heavy, churning guitar parts in “Divinations,” “The Last Baron,” “Crack the Skye,” and “The Czar” stand out so much that I wonder why there aren’t more of them. The drifting, mid-tempo passages are fine, but there are simply too many of them. The natural recourse for this issue is getting into earlier Mastodon albums, specifically Leviathan and Remission. These two albums, especially the former, have surpassed Crack the Skye by a wide margin at this point. They’re crammed with complex, brutal parts and don’t have the bloat of Crack the Skye.

My ultimate take on Crack the Skye surprised me. I ended up preferring the elements that had held me back from getting into Mastodon in the past, not the moodiness and epic song lengths that enticed me this time. I suspect that if I’d already gotten into Remission and Leviathan first, I’d have a much higher inclination to dismiss Crack the Skye outright. Yet its bloat and moodiness come with the territory of its increased emphasis on prog-rock tropes, so I’m willing to overlook them to some degree. I certainly hope that Mastodon can split the difference on their next LP, but the biggest credit I can give to Crack the Skye is making me care about that next album.

123. The Twilight Sad – Forget the Night Ahead LP –FatCat, 2009 – $18

The Twilight Sad's Forget the Night Ahead LP

I passed on seeing Young Scottish Indie Rock in person back in October, when the Twilight Sad and We Were Promised Jetpacks held a Battle of the Poorly Named Bands competition at Great Scott. Clicky Clicky favorites Frightened Rabbit did not attend, but it was two-thirds of the recent resurgence in solid Scottish indie rock. I’ll likely buy the WWPJ album down the line and reserve longer commentary on it until then, but their combination of dynamic swells, Gang of Four rhythms, and youthful energy is a nice palette-clenser for the thoroughly dour Twilight Sad, who I saw with Great Northern at the Middle East Upstairs a while back.

I enjoyed most of the first Twilight Sad full-length, 2007’s Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, but it took a number of spins for Forget the Night Ahead to sink in. Three key hurdles: 1. James Graham’s accent makes the already opaque lyrics downright intractable 2. The removal of additional instrumentation like the accordion makes the wind-tunnel guitar roar awfully samey after a few songs 3. Their attempts at quieter songs and up-tempo “pop” songs pale in comparison to the dramatic mid-tempo highlights. Essentially, I’d get through remarkable opener “Reflection of the Television” and solid first single “I Became a Prostitute” only to see my attention peter out by the middle of the album.

It took “The Neighbours Can’t Breathe” coming up on shuffle for me to give Forget the Night Ahead another shot, but it’s the key to the album. (Apparently it was included as a demo on their 2008 odds-and-sods collection The Twilight Sad Killed My Parents and Hit the Road, but that’s for super fans, which I’m not. “Untitled #28” has considerably clearer vocals and a greater emphasis on the organ part, but overall feels like a demo.) It has a compelling combination of urgency and obfuscation, as Graham mixes understandably pressing lines like “You keep pulling my heartstrings” with cloaked confessions like “And I’m not in the white when we play hide and seek.” Forget the Night Ahead comes down to this push/pull tactic—every hint of clarity, whether sonic or lyrical, is quickly combated with a swell of guitar feedback or a baffling line that’s repeated until you accept that it’s crucially important to Graham’s state of mind.

Forget isn’t as inviting as Fourteen Autumns, but its claws dig in deeper, its impact lingers longer. I suspect the change in aesthetic was driven by their live show, which left earlier material sounding too skeletal without its instrumental flourishes, but the songs certainly support this suffocating emphasis on guitar bluster. Would I appreciate some daylight on their next album? Certainly. But the constant dusk on Forget the Night Ahead is fine for the time being.