The Atlanta prog-metal band Mastodon has a habit of organizing its albums around elemental themes. The 2002 debut Remission was the band's fire album, and 2004's Leviathan, loosely based on Moby-Dick, was their water record. For their major-label debut, Blood Mountain (2006), Mastodon chose earth. Last year's sprawling Crack the Skye, then, is their air record.
But it's more complicated than that.
"We like to have a starting point or concept as an element," says drummer Brann Dailor, who wrote the story that runs through the album's seven songs. "For Crack the Skye it was ether, which is what some people believe the soul is made out of. It's like the quintessential element. We looked into the origins of that and thought, ‘That's some deep shit.'"
Crack the Skye is dense and ambitious, with twisting, unfurling melodies, long, majestic passages of twin guitar, and muscle-bound riffs highlighted by shimmering vocal harmonies. It's a towering accomplishment, and a masterful capstone to Mastodon's evolution from crusty doom-metal mammoths to unlikely arena headliners. Conceptually, though, it's even more far-reaching—even a little ridiculous. The storyline incorporates astral projection, Russian history, and theoretical astrophysics, with echoes of the myth of Icarus to give it classical heft.
"There's a paraplegic, and the only way he can experience the world is to go outside his body by astral travel, or astral projection," Dailor says. "He goes out and flies into outer space. When you do astral projection, you're supported by a golden umbilical cord that connects you to the material world. He goes too close to the sun and his umbilical cord burns up. He's lost in space and gets sucked into a wormhole, into the spirit realm. He explains to the spirits there that he's not really dead, he's just traveling."
From there the traveler is sent back in time and across space to Tsarist Russia, where he meets the spirit of the notorious mystic Rasputin just after his assassination. Rasputin escorts the protagonist through a series of supernatural challenges and back to his body, which has been healed while he was away.
"My grandmother used to tell me she would astral travel when I was a kid, that she was out of her body on a nightly basis," Dailor says. "I'm not saying I necessarily believe this. But I think it's more fun to believe than it is not to believe. Like Bigfoot—I'd rather believe in Bigfoot than not. The life of a skeptic must be a boring one."
The members of the band—Dailor, guitarist Brent Hinds and bassist Troy Sanders, who share lead vocals, and guitarist Bill Kelliher—have already started writing songs for the next album. ("And there are a lot more than just four elements, so there are some interesting and timeless areas that we can go down or avenues we can travel," Dailor says.) Mastodon's most recent project, however, was composing and recording the score for the upcoming Jonah Hex movie starring Josh Brolin and Megan Fox, based on DC Comics' scarred Wild West anti-hero and due out in June. Considering the widescreen scope of Crack the Skye, it's an appropriate assignment; the recently unveiled trailer features cranked-up Ennio Morricone set-ups that build to booming metal riffs.
"It's atmospheric, but there's some straight-up double bass and heaviness," Dailor says. "Some of it is heavy as hell. What you're doing when you do movie stuff is making a theme for a character, and they use that theme throughout the movie, and people relate to the character with music. Like in The Empire Strikes Back, the first time you see the Star Destroyer, you hear Darth Vader's theme. Then every time you see Vader, there's a peppering of that, or a stripped-down version of that theme, maybe just a cello and a violin, one bar of that music. And you know you're about to see Darth Vader."
For the current tour, they're playing Crack the Skye in its entirety, followed by a chronological run-through of the three previous albums.
"It seemed like, it's only seven songs, and we didn't want to omit any of them," Dailor says. "We feel like they make sense together as one long piece. We come out and do that, and it's like a warm-up for the old stuff. We play 40 or 45 minutes of old stuff, so it's an hour-and-a-half show, and we don't talk in between songs or anything. ... It's relentless, and loud as hell."