Mastodon, Crack the Skye (Reprise)
It's easy to accuse Atlanta heshers Mastodon of going soft on their second major-label album. Crack the Skye certainly lacks the bottom-heavy sludge and manic drum fills that distinguished early '00s albums Remission and Leviathan, and the clear singing that's replaced the gruff shouts and barks of those New Wave of American Metal touchstones isn't going to earn Mastodon any credibility among metal purists. But nothing as sprawling and weird as Crack the Skye can really be called a sell-out—guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher don't play with the same punishing force as they used to, but their riffs and solos have gotten even more far out. The songs, too, are out there—the four-part epic "The Czar," about the collapse of Tsarist Russia, and 15-minute album closer "The Last Baron," about Rasputin, aren't exactly bids for massive radio play.
Whether Crack the Skye works is a totally different question, though. The quick answer is that it does. The cleaner, leaner sound suits the spaced-out mood, and there are plenty of satisfyingly heavy passages. Hinds' vocals are improved from 2006's Blood Mountain, and the band may have written its biggest grooves ever, which is saying something. The new Mastodon is an almost entirely different beast than it used to be, but it's still a monster.