*prognotes breaks down and analyses your favourite metal and progressive concept albums lyrically and musically. Read other entries in this series here.
Welcome to another edition of *prognotes! Today we’ll be looking at the crown jewel of Mastodon‘s brilliant discography: 2009’s masterful concept album Crack the Skye. Broadly speaking, the record follows the story of a young paraplegic who experiments with astral travel, an out-of-body experience where an astral body can separate itself, and travel away from, the physical body. However, the link between physical and astral bodies is severed, leading to the protagonist’s soul becoming lost in outer space. Eventually the soul becomes trapped inside the body of the mystical Rasputin just as he plots to overthrow the Russian Czar, and following Rasputin’s death the soul struggles to find a way home into its own body.
For those that don’t know, Rasputin was an adviser to Russia’s last Czar and he was assassinated shortly before the Russian Revolution. Myths abound that he dabbled in black magic, whilst urban legends around his death claim that he survived eating eight heavily poisoned cakes before he was shot three times by assassins. Incredulously he was still alive, and his murderers then bound him, rolled him up in a carpet and threw him into a frozen river. Even then, it is said when his dead body was discovered, his arms had freed themselves from his bonds and he had tried to scratch his way out of the ice surrounding him. Yet, there is more to it than just this fantastical narrative. As we’ll soon explore, the lyrical content is extremely metaphorical, allowing it to be interpreted in numerous ways.
At surface level, the lyrics can be interpreted as describing the personal journeys and issues that come with being in a touring band; however, there are also two specific incidents which tied in with the concept and drove its thematic nature. Musically speaking, this was the first release after guitarist and primary songwriter Brent Hinds was left hospitalised and near-dead following a post-awards show physical altercation. The incident, of which no further details have been publicly revealed, took months of depressive rehabilitation to recover from. Thus, whilst Crack the Skye sacrifices some of the heaviness of their previous output for a more progressive rock approach, Hinds’ expressive songwriting adds a certain emotion and darkness to the record. Perhaps most importantly, the lyrical themes of the album closely follow the emotional journey of drummer Brann Dailor, whose sister Skye (hence the album name) committed suicide at the age of 14. This tragic event saw Dailor’s world collapse when he was only 15 years old. Crack the Skye serves as a homage to his sister’s life, as Dailor revisits his past.
Looking at their previous output, each of Mastodon’s first three albums were broadly related to one of the five classic elements: Remission represented fire, Leviathan dealt with water, and Blood Mountain embodied earth. Being their fourth album, Crack the Skye continued this theme and took on the element of aether, which explains the prevalence of space, spirits and souls throughout the record. It all begins with “Oblivion” setting the scene with electric and acoustic guitars intertwining to form a dark, doom-laden intro. The progressive nature of the album shines through within the first minute, the intro making way for a progressive verse featuring spacey, almost robotic lead vocals from Brann. The verses here are a great example of the vocal delivery, and not just the music and lyrics, drawing from and becoming involved with the album’s concept. Like most excellent lyrics, the words here are suitably ambiguous, getting straight into the story whilst also hinting at numerous metaphorical interpretations.
Here, our protagonist is already venturing into the realms of astral travel and, much like Icarus of Greek mythology, he flies too close to the sun, burning away the golden umbilical cord which connected his spirit with his physical body. However, as well as the conceptual narrative, there are two alternate perspectives one can take when looking at the track’s lyrics. The first sees Dailor himself take the role of the speaker, and so Skye’s death meant he had to deal with a close, intensely personal loss well before most people. Thus a part of him burned away as he was forced to fly beyond the sun sooner than most, the brightness and luster of life fading around him. The alternative perspective is to see Skye take the role of the speaker, as she passed away before it was time, her soul severing any connection to her physical body as she rose into a spiritual realm.
The eyes of our protagonist(s) fade as they come to terms with their respective losses. Our soul has left behind his physical body and, indeed, his world, lost and trapped in outer space. Dailor heart-crushingly blames himself for failing his sister, for failing to protect her from death; and finally Skye perhaps hints as to the reason that she took her life, suggesting that she felt she was a failure to those around her. Hinds then takes over lead vocal duties for the morose and heartfelt chorus:
Our protagonists are lonesome and lost in every sense: alone and lost in time and space, trapped in a void from which they cannot physically/spiritually escape; lost emotionally, falling into depression as they struggle to deal with the horrible loss they’ve experienced; and lost to the world in the most permanent way possible, having passed away at the mere age of 14. The guitar work during this passage brings a melancholic edge to the track, suiting the overall atmosphere with a tone similar to the opening riffs. The second verse does little to ease the mood:
Such pained words make it difficult to think of anything other than Dailor, and just how hopeless and alone he must have felt all those years ago. Hinds then unleashes one of Mastodon’s most emotive solos during the bridge, giving the track an added emotional weight before the song gets heavier, driving the point home. Finally, the lyrics of ‘Oblivion’ also serve as a metaphor for touring life, with band members having to leave the comfort of their homes and families behind to travel to distant foreign lands, not always knowing what to expect.
In contrast to the doom-inspired opening to “Oblivion”, “Divinations” kicks off with an upbeat, chicken-picked banjo. It begins with the soul’s realisation that it has left its body behind, whilst Dailor also comes to terms with the reality of his sister’s death:
The song features harsh vocals for the first time, Hinds’ voice suitably raspy and wild as he evokes how confused our protagonist(s) must be feeling by this point. This track is short and sweet, the shortest on the record, and continues to describe the soul’s perilous journey through space:
A surf guitar solo perfectly embodies the ether theme as the soul travels through a wormhole, only to be captured by a cult of necromancers who, using the gift of divination (or prophecy), send the soul towards the body of Rasputin, who they know will soon die. Looking at it from Skye’s perspective once again, one could argue she is permanently trapped in time space, after all, time and space become meaningless after death. She occupies no space, at least not in the physical world, whilst time loses all sense of meaning when you’re dealing with eternity. A wormhole is a place which man has never travelled to before, and a similar argument can be mounted for heaven itself. Thus the empty wormhole could imply that heaven is empty, or perhaps that she, like our protagonist’s soul, is travelling through a wormhole towards her ultimate destination.
The track’s upbeat nature also does little to assuage Brann’s despair after having lost a kindred spirit so close to him, the darkness of the pre-chorus’s lyrics neatly juxtaposing the somewhat cheery music and vocal delivery:
Two tracks in and only beginning to uncover what lies within, this concludes the first part of our *prognotes on Mastodon’s Crack the Skye. Later this week we’ll take a look at the heart of the album itself, and see what happens next to our protagonist’s soul, Brann, Skye, and where Rasputin comes into it all. We hope to see you there!