This one will take a long time to digest. At what point can you decide that an album is an all-time classic? Certainly not after only a couple of weeks. I think Crack the Skye will walk that line, but only time will tell.
To start out, Mastodon have taken an astronomical leap in songwriting ability. They have simultaneously recorded a more progressive and commercial album, but without sacrificing their essential nature.
They've certainly ramped things up in the vocal department. Catchy choruses abound, and Brann Dailor even pulls a Phil Collins from behind the kit.
These are some excellent songs. The album is so sprawling and complex that it's almost difficult to absorb in one sitting. I think that's a good thing.
The production is slick and subtle. The vocals dominate the mix, and the guitar tone is fairly tame compared to Mastodon's past work. One surprising aspect of the mix is that Brann Dailor's excellent drumming seems occluded. Pushing the drums back in the mix takes quite a bit away from the heaviness of the album, which I'm sure was a conscious decision.
The riffing is excellent throughout, and as usual, Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher are not subtle in their cues for the headbangin' to begin. Synthesized organ and an illusive melotron add to the the prog vibe. By progressive, I mean that guest vocals by Peter Gabriel in a Slipperman costume would have been more appropriate than a visit from Neurosis' Scott Kelly. Some of Brent Hinds' solos are so beautiful they'd make Mike Åkerfeldt weep. On the whole, the music is bluesy enough to thankfully stay on the south side of progressive. I never get the feeling that John Petrucci might step out of the shadows and shred some Polly-o.
So yes, I do have some nitpicky issues with Crack the Skye, but they are dwarfed by the Mastodonic glory of the thing. Brent Hinds' nasally vocals can get on my nerves for brief passages, but he's still at least as good a singer as Ozzy (not much of a compliment). Yes, I sometimes yearn for the album to be a little bit more heavy, but you can't have everything.
My only concern is that the vocals on Crack the Skye have been carefully coaxed and produced. Can Troy Sanders and Brent Hinds belt out these tunes live? Can they stay in key? I certainly hope so. I'll find out at their sold-out Irving Plaza show in May, when they perform the album in its entirety.
So here's the deal. I think Mastodon's Leviathan is one of the best metal albums of all time. Yes, a classic. Crack the Skye feels like its grown-up brother. Maybe this isn't even metal anymore. I don't care. If I can find something new, interesting and pleasing about this album every time I put it on, then I can't ask for more.