2009-06-02 - Choruses from the Mountain of Madness
CHORUSES FROM THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS: Wherein Jabcuga reviews MASTODON'S latest, hears the echoes of astral projection, the whispers of Rasputin's assassination, and the white noise of grieving over the loss of a loved one.
"He had spent his life living the introduction to his life."
From the short story "Night Bloomer," written by David J. Schow, from the collection SEEING RED.
Isn't there something about a Chinese restaurant where it seems like everything is just too rushed? You get your wonton soup and before you're even half way through dunking your crispy fried noodles, a small parade of servers are bringing out your entire meal. You're left with no choice but to either abandon your appetizer and soup or simply dive in, fork (or chopsticks) in hand, and take in everything at once.
MASTODON'S fifth album, Crack The Skye, is a five-course meal. It's mostly served all at once, with little time to savor that soup before your egg rolls, shrimp fried rice, General Tso-what's chicken, and broccoli and beef are scattered around your table. Slurp down that last pork wonton lest your meal get cold. Chinese food: American fast food at its finest. Allow me to add one more morsel: this furious feast of an album is served all at once, yes, but it's expected that you down it while jogging in reverse on a treadmill at seven point five. Brilliantly, perhaps even self-indulgently, MASTODON will leave you with a full belly and stomach cramps.
Trying to slow down this trip is like trying to fasten a harness on an orgasm. Maybe the band will ease up enough to include tantric sex education on their next album. To enjoy Crack The Skye, luckily for you all you'll need is some will power and perhaps a Marlboro for when you're sucking wind after what feels like a marathon through a minefield, even if you are a combat virgin or a Don Juan new jack. MASTODON is not for the weak of heart, those with bad backs, or pregnant women. Crack The Skye may cause injury. Ride at your own risk. Try not to get left behind with your own lonesome song.
Like a lot of prog-rock masterpiece's (RUSH's 2112), MASTODON'S Crack The Skye is not without a loose narrative (We'll talk about all the insane guitar noodling later). The story here involves astral projection, ancient Russian religious cults having orgies in the woods, (the Khlysty, or so I've read, though I claim to be no expert), and the murder of a man whom some labeled the "mad monk," Grigori Rasputin.
Apparently, much like Icarus, he of Greek mythology, the protagonist of Crack The Skye, a paraplegic, dabbles in some out-of-body experimentation, his only means of travel and escape, all of which is covered in the opening track "Oblivion." "I flew beyond the sun before it was time / Burning all the gold that held me inside my shell / Waiting for you to pull me back in."
It's safe to assume that some, if not most of this album, was influenced by a very traumatic experience in the band's relatively short existence. Lead guitarist Brent Hinds suffered a severe head injury after a performance at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards. The brain hemorrhaging left Hinds in a coma, finding him slipping in and out of consciousness and then eventually battling some nasty side effects affecting his equilibrium for months to follow.
"Oblivion" also reflects some of the band's admiration of THE MELVINS, along with shades of early YES, only to cut the tether with a textbook PINK FLOYD guitar solo. Working here with producer/god Brendan O'Brien, you'll notice that Crack the Skye, as an album, has been infused with guitar solos, something the band was very eager to shoehorn into their arsenal. The song is structured with the verse-chorus-verse-bridge design, only to have the chorus come back out of nowhere for one last go-around. It concludes with more than a touch of melancholy: "Falling from grace 'cause I've been away too long / Leaving you behind with my lonesome song / Now I'm lost in oblivion."
"Oblivion" serves as a metaphor for those of us who may have attempted to leave our nest, or escape our self-imposed solitary confinement, only to be pulled back by some cosmic magnet like a robotic prodigal son, who returns home to find everyone else has left him behind. Even on the mother ship, at some point, perhaps when you have lost the perspective of the horizon, or guidance from the Northern star, blotted out by your very own blindness, like an old dog with clouded pupils, each day will be another one wasted, lost at sea, out of shore's reach.
"Divinations", track two, is DONNIE DARKO for fans of METALLICA. It starts with some down-home-on-the-farm finger-lickin'-good chicken pickin', and listeners are informed that "trapped in space," "the wormhole is empty" and the "center of Khlysty surrounds" our lead character. Got all that? Good, 'cause there's a slippery surf guitar solo that'll have you riding the lightning like a wave and then back again into a lower register.
"Quintessence" has mix and match vocal patterns, banjo (!!), a FUGAZI mid section, and enough oomph and thrust to make the Fortress of Solitude crumble. Further proof that MASTODON is branching out: the addition of keyboards. Is this their sell-out album? Their BLACK album? Hardly. (Although I'm not a BLACK album hater.) There's enough blistering guitar work, slap-across-the-side-of-the-face-with-a-two-by-four bass thumping, and guttural Henry Rollins-esque howls to leave your speakers tapping out. Besides, only one track on the entire album clocks in at less than five minutes, and two surpass the very radio-unfriendly length of 10 minutes.
Sweeping in its own vastness is "The Czar", a hybrid of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Sabbotage, straight down to the nasally sounding vocals that would make Ozzy wish he was back to doing what he does best, read: head banging, or anything besides TV sitcoms/variety shows and commercials. The rhythm section here forges its own identity like the whooshing of the blades of a 'copter performing slice-and-dice lobotomies on zombie skulls in a Romero flick. And with the guitar solo, more SABBATH sounds, and man, Tony Iommi sure as shit should be proud. There's even vocal harmonies reminiscent of latter QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE.
The fabric of the story weaves back in, with Rasputin there to guide our wanderer who has strayed too far from his own space and time: "Leave the Tsar to die / Spiraling up through the crack in the sky / leaving material world behind / I see your face in constellations / The martyr is ending his life for mine." That Rasputin, hell of a guy, huh?
"Ghost of Karelia" is like a ghost in the machine, a vintage Asteroids arcade machine, that is, and we're looking outside the spaceship windows during an asteroid shower. It's one of the lighter tracks, there to connect us to the next dot on the map. "How long has it been since we flew through shadows" is asked before listeners can "Crack the Skye," which is the title track. Easily the most personal and pain-drenched song on the album, "Skye" was the sister of drummer Brann Dailor, who committed suicide when both were children (she was 14). "Guard your heartache well / Momma don't let them take her / Don't let them take her down." More of the religion-based undercurrents here, with some religious moral compass directing spirits north or south. "Please tell Lucifer he can't have this one."
Does one need a compass to find their way home, or to bring their loved ones back to them? Perhaps the epic finale "The Last Baron" holds the answers. "Ghost of man surrounds me in my slumber / I have no fear as your wing is my shelter."
"The Last Baron" has some funky YES meets Zappa interludes, and the lyrics "Please, please take my hand / Please take my soul to rest / So we can always be around." Our protagonist in "The Last Baron" sets his sights on immortality, or perhaps what's left of his own mortality, longing for companionship and guidance in those remaining moments. Ask yourself, can forever can come to an end? In the blink of an eye, my friend, look harder, but not today. "The Last Baron / Will he save me? / I was standing staring at the world / And I can't see it / I was standing staring at the world / I still can't see it."
Despite the presence of growing uncertainty and unease, "The Last Baron" is not the last chapter of Crack the Skye, at least in a figurative sense. It's more a rebirth (or is it a resurrection?), like an old soul waking for the first time from its own afterbirth, over and over again, on and on, into infinity, like far-off planets that stare at you, the eyes of a faceless god, always watching. It never reaches out for you, and always manages to avoid your embrace, behind that crack in the sky.
Joshua Jabcuga is an original contributor to Scott Tipton's Comics 101 Web site. He has written two comic book miniseries, SCARFACE: DEVIL IN DISGUISE and THE MUMMY: THE RISE & FALL OF XANGO'S AX (both for IDW Publishing and available at Amazon.com). He summers in Parts Unknown and resides in Oblivion during the winter months.