Friday, April 17, 2009

New Crack, Old Crack, Everywhere A Crack Crack!

MASTODON – “Crack The Skye” CD ’09 (Reprise, US) – I wasn’t barely into my first listen to “Oblivion,” the opening track of MASTODON’s new CD when I thought “uh-oh.” My reaction was not a personal one. I was actually pretty damn stoked at what I was hearing. No, I was more so mulling over the reaction I knew would be coming from the knee-jerk metal press. “Duh…they aren’t growling anymore, dude…and like…the guitars aren’t as heavy, man!” And then I came to my senses. Who gives a fuck what the “I-Saw-Lamb-Of-God-On-Tour-So-I’m-A-Hardcore-Death-Metal-guy”…um…guys think anyway. They’ll be watching American Idol tonight anyway. MASTODON are so far beyond this kind of bullshit that it’s not even funny. And the wonderful thing about this Atlanta band is that while continuing to hone, refine and sharpen their sound, they’ve not only managed to stay as cutting-edge as possible, they’ve also done a little thing called getting huge. In the ‘70’s, a plethora of truly original & heavy bands did that: Sabbath, Purple, Zeppelin to name a few. It’s nearly the ‘10’s now and a decade of a different sort altogether and yet MASTODON is making the same kinda monster tracks the big boys of old did.

This latest set of footprints may make the casual listener believe this 4-piece (Brent Hinds, Bill Kelleher, Troy Sanders & Brann Dailor) has lightened their step a bit. Yup, there’s a definite move toward clean vocals taking the forefront. Oh, the boys still issue a harrowing yell or two but for most of these 7 lengthy tracks, the vox are…wait for it…understandable! Secondly, the production, handled by Brendan O’Brien has a more layered feel than they band has employed in the past. But be careful. Listen a few times. I’m left thinking about the first 2 Metallica albums…immediately raw, sure, and then “Master Of Puppets” came along and the first thing people said was “lighter.” Really? Is that what you thought after a few listens to that title cut or “Disposable Heroes?” Didn’t think so. Listen, absorb and let the flower open slowly and embrace you before you suddenly realize it’s a Venus flytrap crushing you in it’s gorgeous petals. This album and band remind me so much of another I watched develop over the years with great glee (when’s the last time you saw the word “glee” in a MASTODON review?!), Voivod. They started as a pretty raw, noisy metal band & next thing you knew, they’d morphed into a formidable progressive band who managed to stay heavy while getting a helluva lot smarter & more interesting. Granted, MASTODON may have had more chops early on than the late Piggy’s crew but look at the journey these cats have made since “Lifesblood” back in 2001. It all arrives here, with “Crack The Skye,” in what I can only describe as a Technicolor hybrid of Rush, DBC, The Melvins & Thin Lizzy with a little BOC thrown in for good measure. “CTS” simply superbly written, played and produced and the arrangement of the songs as well as their flow is a study in metal for 2009 and beyond. The album features 5 “shorter” songs, mostly in the 5 ½ minute range, save for “Divination” (3 ½). It also contains two mammoths, the 4-part “The Czar” (10:54) and “The Last Baron” (13:01). Even these, however, are jewels in that Hinds & Kelleher never solo needlessly, often choosing instead to steer in the direction of guitar harmonies & melodic figures that fit the mood of the piece. The entire band works together seamlessly, buoyed by Dailor’s ridiculously great Lombardo-esque sticksmanship, and at the same time they develop a give-&-take tension that amplifies the power of the songwriting 10-fold.

It’s odd because sometimes an album of this depth (the lyrics are a story unto themselves) requires less said by a critic than one might believe. And so, I’ll shut up. You go to the store, buy this disc and listen…many times. The reward will be your’s. Hoofprints, Beards & Refinement

CRACK THE SKY – “Safety In Numbers” LP ’78 (Lifesong, US) – 1978…wow! I mean, hey, what can you say about 1978? It’s the year “Stained Class” was released and hence, by that fact alone, stands atop a sort of musical mountain all of it’s own. Any year that produces my favourite album of all-time is worthy of some damn decent props. But is that all it has to offer? Providing day in which our ol’ buddies Halford, Tipton, Downing, Hill & Binks laid waste to the world of metal in a way it has never been beaten before or after? Nah, there’s more. Take for instance, this 3rd effort by Pittsburgh’s chosen rock sons, CRACK THE SKY. My love for this band won’t surprise many people who’ve read this page over the last year or so. My review of their December ’08 show in Towson MD as well as a pretty cool interview thanks to main CRACK man John Palumbo tell you that these guys reside pretty high on my musical rungs. Interesting then, to take a look back at an album that not only ended the first studio era of the band but also was very odd in terms of John Palumbo’s role.

It was after the release of “Crack The Sky” and “Animal Notes” that CRACK THE SKY began work on their 3rd record. With a few of the songs for “Safety…” already having emerged from the brilliant pen of John Palumbo, the band were in the middle of recording the record when John decided to take his leave of the group. From what I understand, it was a decision carefully considered by John, based on personal things at the time and the band respected his decision. They opted to carry on with vocalist Gary Lee Chappell, writing enough material to complete the record. As it turns out, it was a smart move to go on as the band scarcely missed a beat. Opening with “Nuclear Apathy,” CTS waste little time in going right for the jugular with one of the most massive tracks of their career, penned by Palumbo. Beginning with a lilting opener stating that “Something’s wrong from the moon,” the 8 ½ minute opus is a scathing social commentary about the human race, as it would be seen by those from another world. From it’s mild-mannered intro, the song explodes into a mega-riff-fest, as guitarists Rick Witkowski & Jim Griffiths hand out an auditory beating heavier than any in the band’s catalogue. The wicked time signature changes that peppered the band’s earlier pieces are still around but on this cut, they take a backseat to the mighty RIFF! Up next is another of the cuts John Palumbo had scribed before he left and it’s a wonderful example of CRACK’s great style juxtapositions. Entitled “Long Nights,” it’s a ballad that oozed just as much wrenching melody as it does JP’s superbly barbed lyricism. From there, the dichotomy continues. On one hand you’ve got the proto-NWOBHM of “Lighten Up McGraw.” Witkowski’s solo reaches KK Downing levels of wang bar madness & his lyrics are pretty damn Palumbo-esque, including one of my fave lines ever: “I sleep in a pyramid & I visit a shrink. A bum in a cave said he thought I could think.” On the other side of the coin (but on the same side of the album!) CTS swings into “A Night On The Town (With Snow White),” a super-catchy pop number complete with doo-wop backing vox. And, speaking of vocals, while not Palumbo, Gary Chappell gets close enough to his illustrious predecessor throughout to render this “classic” CRACK THE SKY while still putting his own stamp on the proceedings, especially on the 7 minute title track.

“Safety In Numbers” is surely the work of a band in flux, so much so that they’d disband shortly after the tour to support it (only to reform a few years later around the Palumbo/Witkowski core). Still, the raw musical talent and artistry here allowed these guys to play it anything but safe…and rawk like a bitch all the while. Big Numbers

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