Mastodon: Russian Revolution
Originally published in Guitar World, May 2009
In need of a sonic transformation, Mastodon broke with their longtime
producer and teamed up with hit-maker Brendan O'Brien. The result is Crack the Skye, an intense concept record involving near-death experiences, astral travel and Russian mystics. Guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher give Guitar World a look behind the curtain.
Of all the adjectives one could use to describe Mastodon’s epic new album, Crack the Skye, “relaxing” probably wouldn’t be one of them. But that is exactly how guitarist Brent Hinds describes his band’s latest effort.
“This album is more mellow than our previous ones,” Hinds says. “It’s a good album to relax to.”
He’s exaggerating, of course. While the album’s overall tempo may be slightly slower, the melodies more harmonious and the tonal palette more varied, Crack the Skye overflows with intense drama from beginning to end. Centered on the theme of ether, telling tales of death, astral travel, and entry and exit from the spiritual realm, this ambitious effort explores obscure topics like the Russian Khlysty religious cult, Czar Nicholas II, the numerous attempts to assassinate Rasputin, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. At the same time, the lyrics offer a poignant tribute to drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor’s deceased sister Skye, who committed suicide at the age of 14 when Brann was only 15. This certainly isn’t the kind of album you’d put on while cracking open a bottle of chardonnay and grilling salmon steaks in your backyard.
“Every song has its own story and is a piece of art on its own,” says guitarist Bill Kelliher. “The album is a whole package, like a novel or a film. We try to do each record like that, instead of just putting out a bunch of songs. It’s part of a bigger picture.”
Crack the Skye’s instrumental tracks match the intensity and heaviness of its lyrical content. Hinds and Kelliher laid down multiple layers of complex rhythmic guitar textures punctuated by evolving circular triplet-note patterns, bludgeoning riffs that shift time signatures as quickly and smoothly as a Bentley Azure’s automatic transmission, and classic-inspired solos that sound as if they traveled through time back to the Seventies. Dailor’s drums and Troy Sanders’ bass lines keep the music rooted in terra firma, allowing the six-string specialists to explore the outer reaches of the sonic atmosphere.
Although Mastodon made their previous three albums with producer/engineer Matt Bayles, they felt it was necessary to break the mold and work with a new producer to help them reach the new heights to which they aspired. Several of their first choices weren’t available, but as luck would have it the best match turned up right in the backyard of their hometown of Atlanta. Brendan O’Brien agreed to produce the album after he completed work on AC/DC’s Black Ice, which enabled the band to work at O’Brien’s Atlanta base, Southern Tracks Recording, without leaving behind the comforts of home. It also gave the guitarists unlimited access to O’Brien’s impressive guitar, amp and effect pedal collection, which Hinds and Kelliher gleefully took advantage of.
Rehearsing for the band’s upcoming headline tour, Mastodon now face the challenge of duplicating Crack the Skye’s complex arrangements and sonic landscapes on the road. The stage production promises to be as ambitious as the album, featuring an onslaught of visuals and lights and even the accompaniment of a guest keyboardist.
“We have a rigorous schedule ahead of us,” Hinds says. “We’re in the final days of the third trimester with this album. We’ll give birth to the album and then it will take a few months before we think about having sex with each other and creating another baby. Everything is lined up to be mega, mega big for us. We’ve got the music and we’re all in good health and spirits. We’re going to go out there one more time and try to take over the world.”