2009 has been a fantastic year for music. It took us quite a while to come up with a Top 15 that we could all agree upon. But alas, here it is. From old favorites to new kids on the block (No, that that new kids!) We proudly present. The top 15 albums of 2009.. and away we go!
15) Built to Spill: There is no Enemy
Three years after the release of its last album, “You in Reverse,” Built to Spill returns with its seventh release, “There Is No Enemy,” which finds the band exploring new influences outside of the familiar indie-rock territory while still indulging in the transcendent guitar solos it’s become known for. On the country rock-flavored single “Hindsight,” frontman Doug Martsch sings in a wistful tenor over a mix of languid and urgent guitar riffs, while “Life’s a Dream” features an extended guitar solo against horns that provide a soulful demeanor. The haunting “Oh Yeah” opens with Martsch singing, “And if God does exist, I am sure he will forgive me for doubting,” whereas the frantic-sounding “Pat” offers a dose of punk rock to the set. Martsch has hinted that “There Is No Enemy” could be the band’s final album. If that’s the case, the set’s multifaceted melodies and experimentation would be an inspired sendoff
14) The XX: XX
By the time the second track of the xx’s debut reaches its chorus, it’s clear that xx is something special. “VCR” is a delicate bit of introspective pop, centered on the exchange between two vocalists who seem only ambiguously aware of each other’s presence: At times they finish each others’ sentences, but otherwise pursue their own confessional monologues. And when they draw out the song’s aching refrain, “But you…you just know…you just do…,” it’s unclear whether they’re speaking to each other. It’s an utterly absorbing performance, allowed full command of the listener’s attention by its subtle instrumental backdrop.
That musical austerity is the most striking aspect of the xx’s sound. Each song is founded on the spare, kinetic interplay between programmed drumbeats and Oliver Sims’s lightly thumbed basslines. From there, Romy Croft and Baria Quershi fill out the songs with minimal guitar work, using simple riffs as much for texture as for rhythm or melody. Negative space is a major part of the xx’s aesthetic, so that every melodic phrase resonates, as though the band has somehow found a way to suspend their nuanced melodies in the aural equivalent of zero gravity. One gets the impression that every handclap and twinkling xylophone note was meticulously placed, where the same interjections would have sounded obligatory or cluttered on a fuller record.
If that sounds trying in print, it’s a pleasure to report what a wholly engrossing pop album the xx have crafted. Indie sorts will emphasize the band’s similarities to Joy Division and Portishead, and they aren’t wrong, but fans of Regina Spektor’s woozy ballads or the coyly sex-pop of early Belle & Sebastian will find as much to enjoy. xx sounds as though it could have been released any time in the past three decades, and would be equally at home on a mixtape with Roxy Music, New Order, and Interpol. Whomever their influences, though, the xx seems refreshingly detached from any recent trends in pop music, indie or mainstream. And whatever its instrumental touchstones, there’s no denying that xx derives its abundant soul from Sims and Crofts’s utterly charming vocal exchanges.
Croft’s the more capable of the pair, possessed of a breathy deadpan that makes her sound like the shyer kid sister of the Waitresses’s Patty Donahue. Sims and Crofts both have a way of elongating their words, all sharp exhales and lilting syllables, that ups the ante on the album’s underlying sexual tension while still sounding tossed-off and wholly unaffected. Their chemistry is what finally makes xx so much more than fashionable mood music. Whether one takes their hushed duets as melancholy pillow talk or as the hard confessions that precede a breakup, their understated emotional heft always pumps warm blood into what might otherwise be quite a cold record.
On tracks that only feature one of the singers, like “Fantasy” or “Shelter,” one’s attention starts to wander, but even those tracks manage to stay on the more interesting side of ambient. Some indie pop groups make dramatic grabs for their listeners’ attention through grandiose hooks, while others prefer the slow enchantment of ethereal soundscapes. The xx opts for an appealing middle ground between immediacy and ambiance, and the highly sophisticated results are all the more impressive for being delivered by a foursome of 20-year-olds who have somehow acquired a knack for the kind of quietly ambitious songcraft for which some bands strive for their entire careers.
If there’s anything wrong with the album, it’s the contentment to present subtle variations on the same basic ideas, ultimately covering little sonic terrain by the time the album wraps up. It’s hard to argue with this approach, though, when said terrain proves so compelling. If the xx doesn’t take many chances, it’s because they have enough confidence to execute their stripped-down aesthetic without resorting to gimmickry and that confidence is well-deserved. Even though “Stars” concludes the album a lot like “VCR,” the impression is that an emotional transfiguration has been completed. That’s because Sims and Croft use their final words to replace the ruminative mood of the former song with a note of hesitant optimism: “But if stars shouldn’t shine/By the very first time/Then, dear, it’s fine, so fine by me/’Cause we can give it time, so much time/With me.” It’s a perfectly executed ending for an album whose understated pleasures will surely amount to one of the year’s most treasured releases.
13) Lighting Bolt: Earthly Delights
Lightning Bolt is not the sort of band likely to surprise their listeners with a sudden digression into acoustic balladry or chirpy synth-pop. For the uninitiated, Lightning Bolt consists of two guys named Brian, one who plays an electric bass through several effects pedals and an amp the size of a refrigerator, and one who plays drums as quickly as he possibly can while shouting stuff into a telephone receiver strapped to his face with what looks like a Day-Glo bondage mask. Together, they play incredibly complex riff-rock that exists somewhere between brash, lo-fi garage punk and deranged prog rock. They are very loud. They are not for everybody.
One may very well ask, even if you like Lightning Bolt, why you need this record. Their style is, in some ways, inherently limiting. Everything Lightning Bolt does will sound like other things Lightning Bolt has done: it will have crushingly huge bass riffs and manic drumming, with some distorted and incomprehensible yelling thrown in for good measure. My father has likened the band to having someone grab your lapels and scream in your face for 45 minutes; this may be, but there are few who yell better.
Earthly Delights, the bands latest album, delivers everything anyone could reasonably want or need from Lightning Bolt, but offers enough variations on their trademark sound to distinguish it from previous efforts. Colossus starts with a slow, sludgy chord riff, and then develops gradually over the course of six minutes, covering more nuanced dynamic territory than the band has yet explored. This is in direct contrast to the penultimate track, S.O.S., which, after an opening blast of noise, explodes into three minutes of delirious intensity as unrelenting as anything theyíve ever recorded. Funny Farm incorporates some surprisingly country-sounding licks, and The Sublime Freak marries a rolling rototom figure to a riff that is somehow both bouncy and massive. And while the psychedelic interludes Flooded Chamber and Rain on Lake i’m Swimming
In don’t generate much interest on their own, they do serve to break up the sense of sameness that often sets in during the second half of a Lightning Bolt album.
All of this is relative, of course. To say that Funny Farm sounds like country music is to say that it sounds as much like country music as anything played by a bass-and-drums noise-rock duo is going to. And, in addition to the inventiveness of the tracks mentioned above, the bandís limitations and less compelling idiosyncrasies are on display as well. Nation of Boar and Transmissionary are terribly repetitive, and long enough that they become boring rather than hypnotic; at 12 minutes, Transmissionary takes up almost a quarter of the record with what amounts to variations on one riff. And while it is possible to ignore the distorted, caterwauling vocals in favor of the bandís instrumental prowess, it begins to grate over the course of 50 minutes.
These flaws do not significantly diminish the recordís successes, however, and should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever heard a Lightning Bolt record before. Earthly Delights builds on the bandís last two successes, more concise than 2005s Hypermagic Mountain and more stylistically diverse than 2003s Wonderful Rainbow. But what Lightning Bolt excels at what it’s always excelled at is delivering bass riffs that sound like Zeus rolling down the mountainside in a Harley Davidson with Keith Moon flailing maniacally in the sidecar. What else could you need?
12) Dinosaur Jr.: Farm
So now we know Beyond, Dino’s 2007 original-lineup comeback record, wasn’t a fluke. In fact, it was an indication of greater records to come; Farm actually bests Beyond’s triumphs.
Yes, J. Mascis is still the only man in slacker-generation alternative rock who can play squealing guitar solos on every song and get away with it, as evidenced on the beautifully plaintive Plans. Bassist Lou Barlow revives his Sebadoh magic on Your Weather, while drummer Murph powers a disc worthy of repeated listens. How Dinosaur Jr. came to be this good and arguably better than their late 80s/early 90s heyday shall remain a glorious mystery
11) Handsome Furs: Face Control
Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry are insufferable exhibitionists when it comes to putting their love on display. If their promo pics are to be believed, their electro-touched art rock is made in the short intervals between wild fuck sessions. Still, there’s no denying the chemistry between these two; it throbs all over their impressive new disc.
10) Blackroc: Blackroc
Blackroc is a collaborative album between former Rocafella head honcho, Dame Dash and friends, and the Akron based duo, The Black Keys.
Rap-rock, as a genre, has a bad connotation. In many cases, rightly so. The music world has been exposed to plenty of hip-hop-meets-rock incarnations since Steven Tyler busted through Run DMC’s wall back in the day.
But it’s hard to resist the rusty, bluesy sounds of Ohio’s Black Keys on “Blackroc,” particularly when they’re paired up with Rza and Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan, Mos Def, Ludacris, Q-Tip and others.
Normally, the Keys would be cranking out distorted garage blues, but they tweak their sound here to better accommodate a set of excellent verses that really manage to meld the two genres without it sounding forced.
Shimmery guitar echoes back Mos Def during “On the Vista,” Jim Jones and MOP’s Billy Danze spin cautionary romantic tales over the old-school crunch of “What You Do To Me” and NOE rolls over the garage funk of “Done Did It.”
Even when the production is derivative, it works: Keys’ guitarist Daniel Auerbach does a beautiful job capturing the essence of classic Wu-Tang production with his guitar as Rza and Pharoahe Monch rhyme on one of the album’s best tracks, “Dollaz & Sense.”
“Blackroc” has what so many other rap-rock projects are missing: By using the same type of raw sound that so many hip-hop samples are after in the first place, the Keys are able to create a hybrid record that sounds completely unforced, and most of the time, really, really good.
9) Sonic Youth- The Eternal
For nearly two decades, Sonic Youth followed its experimental whims under the Geffen corporate banner, making forward-looking rock as exciting and truly distinctive as anything they’d created for the guerrilla indie labels SST and Blast First. Their newest, “The Eternal,” is the first to be released through the proud indie vet Matador, and the transition begins with a moment of clanging, atonal guitars.
Boho superstar Kim Gordon rips into two quick, breathless minutes of “Sacred Trickster,” scraping at her guitar strings as she recites an imagined conversation: “What’s it like to be a girl in a band? / I don’t quite understand / That’s so quaint to hear / I feel so faint, my dear.”
Sonic Youth has perfected and expanded its approach through the years, still grinding at will but also laying back to take in the beauty of a quieter moment. Their cultural touchstones are again the lives of tragic artists, with lyrical references here to painter Yves Klein and Beat poet Gregory Corso, among others. Singer-guitarist Thurston Moore’s “Thunderclap (For Bobby Pyn)” is an excited ode to first-wave L.A. punk and doomed local antihero Darby Crash.
Drummer Steve Shelley sends anxious, tumbling beats through “Driving the Snake,” and singer-guitarist Lee Ranaldo builds great waves of abrasive sound and melody to signify warmth and feeling on “Walkin’ Blue” with a brief, but recurring vocal harmony that may be the first-ever echo of pure Beatles pop on a Sonic Youth album.
The music remains ageless and weird, fueled on chaos and clarity, but these are songs, not sound experiments for their own sake. Indie or not, Sonic Youth knows how to follow its wild trips into confusion and still be at peace with high-octane form and function.
8) Grizzly Bear: Veckaimest
The neo-classical precision of Grizzly Bear’s music has the feeling that its choral harmonies, woozy orchestrations, and slippery waltz signatures aren’t just written, but composed has only grown more pronounced since Yellow House, but somehow that meticulousness never becomes lifelessness. Veckatimest was named after an unpopulated island, but itís teeming with life, mystery, and surpriseóthe biggest of which may be its potential for crossover success. As early glimpses of the ethereal, doo-wop-derived earworm Two Weeks and the swooning psychedelia of While You Wait For The Others hinted, Veckatimest is more song-oriented than its predecessors without sacrificing any experimental tics, making for the bandís most satisfying record yet.
Distressed electric piano, disembodied choirs, and the instantly discernible strings of Nico Muhly color the albumís meditations on distance, as seen in the bitter retreat of the galloping opener Southern Point (Youíll never find me now) and the hushed, heartbreaking refrain of All We Ask. (I can’t get out of what Iím into with you.) But for all Veckatimest’s talk of space, its brilliance lies in subtle, interlocking moments such as the backward guitar disrupting the lockstep girl-group groove of Cheerleader, the way the watery ballad Dory shifts seamlessly from genteel to creepy, or the cinemascope cacophony that ends I Live With You. As with Animal Collectiveís Merriweather Post Pavilion (a record it seems likely to vie with for album of the year), Veckatimest offers more than just an inventive exercise in collage: Itís like hearing the past few centuries of music playing in symphony, which sounds thrillingly and reassuringly like the future.
Boeckner deserves most of the credit, though. His warbling voice sticks in your head when he sings I don’t know but I’ve been t
old, every little thing has been bought and sold in the standout Talking Hotel Arbat Blues. So does the strident guitar hook in the jubilant All We Want, Baby, Is Everything. Great album, but get a room already.
7) Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Animal Collective are the Peter Pans of indie-rock. Four avant-garde thirtysomethings from Baltimore, whose stage names betray their regard for childhood, Panda Bear, Avey Tare, Geologist and Deakin have made eight albums of head-spinning, outre pop, the best of which evoke the fleeting highs of prepubescence when life is endowed with endless possibilities.
Even by their own exuberant standards, though, AC’s ninth album is a dizzying knees-up that makes most music, indie rock or otherwise, sound both bloodless and pathetically timid. In short, it is the record Flaming Lips might have made if, after Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Wayne Coyne and co had retained their wonderment and embraced Afropop, techno, dub and rave.
Certainly Merriweather Post Pavilion is both ecstatic and informed by ecstasy, judging by the explosive opener In the Flowers, wherein singer Avey Tare seeks oblivion (“If I could just leave my body for the night”), and the hymnal techno of My Girls. Even the rapturous Summertime Clothes, perhaps the most accessible track in the group’s oeuvre, chiefly since the words for once aren’t buried in the mix, is anchored by a seething electronic riff.
All of which makes Merriweather a companion piece to Panda Bear’s 2007 album Person Pitch which, thanks to its cosmic sensibility, graced untold end of year polls. This is just as good.
6) The Flaming Lips: Embryonic
If new albums by Super Furry Animals, 50 Foot Wave, and the Flaming Lips are any indication, 2009 is smack in the middle of a new psychedelic age. Popism, rockism: please defer briefly to weirdism. The Lips have always been the most chthonic of the nouveau psychsters, and on the Oklahoma vets’ 12th studio album, they dive deep into the netherworld of human duality. This 70-minute epic (marketed as a double album, in the old-school sense) pairs ugliness with beauty on a host of auditory freakouts and creepy meditations: squawks of distortion and instrumental distress nestle up to twinkling Rhodes pianos and breathtaking ruptures of harmony.
In “Aquarius Sabotage,” what sounds like B-movie psychosis is augmented by grand waves of harp.. It’s as if Alice Coltrane were to walk into a scuzz-punk bar. Likewise, the descending vocal lullaby in “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” sweetly complements the rough industrial grind of its rhythm section, and “Silver Trembling Hands” juxtaposes nervous tension with breezy relief.
To add lyrical emphasis, frontman Wayne Coyne muses throughout on the inherent good in evil and vice versa, and how, ultimately, it’s all a gray area: “Man holds a gun/There’s no explanation/He shoots at the sun,” he sings in “The Ego’s Last Stand.” Like the Furries’ Dark Days/Light Years, Embryonic is made mostly of pulsating studio jams, and like 50 Foot Wave’s Power Light, it’s regularly assaultive of the kick-drum mic in “Your Bats” could be lodged in John Bonham’s soul. Unlike those releases, it’s unhinged, fragmented, and at odds with itself.
This is accessible music pushed to the very edge of accessibility, far away from the safety of the band’s song-oriented efforts At War with the Mystics and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. All due respect to the Lips did good as pied pipers for the freak-flagged populace, but this here underneath is some fertile soil indeed.
5) The Dead Weather: Horehound
There are precious few bands, especially those operating in the sonically weighty end of the musical spectrum, that demonstrate any appreciation for the notion that the notes you play may be less important than those you don’t.
The Dead Weather, Jack White’s latest project — a collaboration with the Killsí singer Alison Mosshart, Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Dean Fertita and Raconteurs bassist Jack Lawrence — embraces that philosophy with bone-chilling power on “Horehound,” the bandís take-no-prisoners debut.
Mosshart brings a wildcat’s ferocity to her vocals; she’s a fearsome adversary to all those high-pitched metal wailers. White, leaving the guitar work predominantly to Fertita, takes up his seat at the drums to drive this machine in tandem with Lawrence’s titanic bass lines. Beefy riffs, upended beats and blues-rooted atmospherics are dolloped on sparingly, until it’s time to explode with a solo.
“I like to grab you by the hair / And drag you to the devil” Mosshart snarls in “Hang You From the Heavens,” which she wrote with Fertita. “Stand up like a man,” she warns in the quartet-composed “Treat Me Like Your Mother,” “You better learn to shake hands / And treat me like your mother.”
In White’s “Cut Like a Buffalo,” his lead vocal, one of just two on this outing, is accompanied by the convulsive sounds of Mosshart’s gurgles as he cries, “Is that you choking / Or are you just joking?” There’s no joke here — just mountains of chest-rattling primal rock designed to reassert the elemental power of the four-piece rock group. Mission accomplished.
4) Them Crooked Vultures: S/T
A blues-rock guitarist joins forces with one-fourth of the defining blues-rock band. The bassist behind a legendary drummer backs another giant. The drummer on Queens of the Stone Age ringmaster Josh Homme’s best album reunites with Homme. Is it really a surprise Them Crooked Vultures is so strong?
Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones-yep, they of Nirvana and Led Zeppelin fame-revise their enormously influential playing styles as Homme improves his, with hardcore-bred Grohl’s novel mixture of syncopation and swing and Jones’ ironclad application of modern (and badass) bass approach. As the riff on “New Fang” scrambles your perception of timing and “Nobody Loves Me and Neither Do I” and “Mind Eraser, No Chaser” make Slipknot reevaluate their self-worth, even the less brutal late-starters don’t disappoint on initial listen.
But it’s still the ferocity of the aptly-named “Elephants” that shows what this new band is about. A Zep lick finds smoothly double-timed drumming out of nowhere, to be replaced yet again by contorted rhythmic subdivisions. It’s easy to imagine Homme’s piercing glare and imposing frame facing Grohl, demanding to see the beast who delivered on Nevermind nearly two decades ago. Conversely, proven somebodies Jones and Grohl light a fire under Homme’s ass to energize his singing in a way the self-described “robot-rock” limitations of QOTSA never pushed out.
Although the loud tracks are the most immediate, the subtleties of later numbers like “Reptiles” prove nearly as rewarding,; don’t even think of stopping play before “Gunman” shows what these pros do with a dance number.
The trifecta of riff-, groove- and jam-based tracks form something unusual for these projects: an item that will last the test of time, something that all three of these guys are very, very used to-and that the promise of supergroups like Them Crooked Vultures rarely, rarely live up to.
3) Fuck Buttons: Tarot Sport
British experimental / noise duo Fuck Buttons’ first album, Street Horrrsing, appeared last year on ATP Recordings, to a whole heap of critical acclaim. Not much more than 18 months later, they now present its follow up for which, it would be fair to say, the phrase “eagerly awaited” is very much applicable. Have they reneged on their wealth of early promise, or instead consolidated their position as one of the UK’s most exciting, original and invigorating young bands?
Resoundingly, the reply would have to be the latter. This is, from the off, a glorious piece of work. L
ead single and opening track Surf Solar twinkles, with squiggles and glimmers of brittle yet sparkling synth sounds, interspersed with extracts that simply soar, all this serving as the prelude to the moment when the bass line thuds, the main melodic riff appears and repeats – like wordless singing (a trick also repeated in the “hu… hu… ho… ho…” sounds later, on Phantom Limb).
In common with many of the (seven) tracks here (see also: The Lisbon Maru, Olympians and Phantom Limb in particular) the melody, intensity, rhythm and musical themes are given the space and the time to build as the piece progresses. Layers of synths, glitches, beats and other curious uncategorisable sounds tend to emerge in an unhurried way until, almost before you realise it, something which started out as calm and near-sedate is now richly euphoric.
But if you deconstruct this energy and exhilaration, it’s surprising to realise that very little of it can be attributed to the kind of fast pace and rhythm that would normally lend more conventional “dance” music these qualities. The most upbeat and life-enhancing tracks on the album are, counter-intuitively, actually those whose pace could almost be described as sedate or stately, with a medium tempo and a sense of calm.
The melodies too seem strangely simple, often riffing on as little as three notes in a major key (Flight Of The Feathered Serpent) although they are invariably, undeniably beautiful – from the trebly, good-times tune in The Lisbon Maru to Olympians’ high pitched twinkling, which manages to be moving and happy-yet-sad at the same time.
A technique used on a couple of occasions, to great effect, is to suddenly and quite dramatically strip this layering back down again, having slowly built it up. The times when this happens in both Rough Steez and Olympians are among the best moments on the whole album and give a sudden added emphasis to key pieces of melody, adding a refreshing clarity and sense of simplicity, yet also drama, all at once.
This trick is reversed, to almost equal effect, by the sometimes sudden insertion of an extra layer, melody or synth line, lifting a track that one hadn’t thought needed lifting, onto a whole new plane. Surf Solar, The Lisbon Maru and – again – Olympians all do this; and at its best the device is like the sudden emergence of blazing sunlight on a previously cloudy day.
Counteracting and offsetting all these happy highs are some darker, more menacing moments. These, interestingly, are all found on the faster, thus superficially more “danceable” tracks, such as Rough Steez, with its mechanical-sounding noises, like a weird kind of synthesized clockwork engine, or Phantom Limb’s darker, harsher beats, glitches and rhythms.
Only Space Mountain feels slightly less than a fully-realised success. The volume and layers of sound build as the track progresses, yet somehow the emotional engagement doesn’t, to anything like the same extent as elsewhere on the album. Something of the joyous “step up” in mood and degree that one waits for just fails to arrive.
From their wilfully unquotable name, to the oblique yet evocative album and track titles (Surf Solar, Olympians, Space Mountain and Flight Of The Feathered Serpent being particularly indirect yet appropriate to the content that they are named after), and in the distinctive artwork that accompanies their releases also, there is something self-contained, a little mysterious and indefinable about Fuck Buttons. Much as their sound is far easier to enjoy and appreciate than it is to analyse, so the band themselves seem intriguingly “other”.
This can only add to their appeal, but ultimately such things are peripheral. Where it really matters, really really matters, is in the music. And such are the music’s joyous highs, subtle thrills and rich and deep layers, they can undoubtedly be judged one of the most worthwhile and special bands currently at large.
2) Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Regular viewers of Saturday Night Live could be forgiven for uttering a perplexed ”Pardonnez-moi?” in April when the musical guests for actor Seth Rogen’s high-profile hosting gig appeared. ? As devoted as their small Stateside fan base may be, French disco-rock outfit Phoenix seemed an anomaly in a season more attuned to Kanye, Beyonce, and Coldplay or even ”mainstream” indie acts like Fleet Foxes and TV on the Radio. Give the show’s talent booker some credit, though: Despite their lack of Top 40 currency, the Versailles-bred foursome actually possess one of the purest pop aesthetics on either side of the Atlantic.
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, their fourth studio album, makes no attempts to curtail or complicate its sunny, synth-driven urges. Instead, frontman Thomas Mars is perhaps best known to coastal hipsters and film fanatics as the companion of director Sofia Coppola. He croons urbanely over thumping percussion, airy disco flutters, and the occasional raucous guitar riff, his lightly accented English alternating between feathery falsetto and a clear, yearning warble. On the vivacious lead single, ”1901,” he purrs, ”Counting all different ideas driftin’ away/Past and present they don’t matter.” Lost in translation? A little, maybe, but the spirit is always, essentially, of being inside some ever-groovy moment. Though the album trips lightly from slinky roller-skate jams (”Fences”) to near Brit-rocky rave-ups (”Lasso”), the underlying vibe is both retro and somehow outside of time like a memory made sweeter than the real thing it recalls
1) Mastodon: Crack the Skye
Atlanta’s hard rock purveyors extraordinaire Mastodon are some pretty deep dudes. Their albums fringe upon prog-metal perfection; each of their discs are an exercise in storytelling and songcraft as much as they are in head-banging. Their conceptual themes draw from both the most vested of canonical literature as well as highly imaginative parts of their personal mythologies and group subconscious. Take for instance their debut, 2002’s Remission, which revolved thematically around a dream had by drummer Brann Dailor, prophesizing a burning horse and nuclear holocaust, or 2004’s Leviathan, which heavily referenced Melville’s Moby Dick as an analogy for their own feelings of chasing the white whale and embarking on something they initially found to be impossible. And then there’s 2006’s Blood Mountain, which spun a yarn about climbing mountains and reaching an apex only to find there are only more challenges (and bloodthirsty ogres) at the top. So itís no wonder that, when news started to surface that Mastodon would be releasing a new album, one question resounded more than any other: what kind of hair-brained story arc would this one follow?
For those anticipating the new album to further Mastodon’s progress as raconteurs, Crack the Skye does not disappoint, continuing in the vein of a conceptual novella and completing an alchemical cycle of sorts. Where Remission dealt with fire, Leviathan with water, and Blood Mountain with the Earth, Crack the Skye deals with just that, the sky and the non-earthly realms, the atmosphere and the greater expanses of outerspace, what many have throughout the ages called the aether. Crack the Skye’s underlying concept is perhaps the most out-there yet for Mastodon, rivaling in convoluted inanity the story behind Genesisís The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. It tells the tale of an astral-traveling paraplegic, who, like Icarus, is brought back down to Earth from flying too close to the sun, his golden umbilical cord melted, causing him to plunge through a wormhole, back through time amidst Tsarist Russia, where a divining cult of mystics called the Khylysty have cast the paraplegicís spirit into the body of Grigori Rasputin. Once earthbound, the spirit warns Rasputin of his impending assassination. When Rasputin finally succumbs to his assassins, after putting up quite a fight mind you, the
spirit returns through the wormhole back into the paraplegicís body where he can once again walk. Crazy shit, right?
With the aid of big-time producer Brendan O’Brien, Mastodon have definitely cracked the sky with this one. After a bout of fisticuffs left lead man Brent Hinds with his head knocked in after the MTV Video awards, he was laid up in near catatonia for months, leaving the band worried he had brain damage and possible motor skill loss. The news hit the band hard and had them seriously contemplating for the first time that perhaps Mastodon would be no more. Itís an event that plays itself out duly on Crack the Skye. Opening track “Oblivion” deals lyrically with the aforementioned physically disabled astral traveler, who to escape his own feelings of being inextricably earthbound, psychically casts himself out into the astral plane through mind and body. It stands to reason that this trope is built on the feelings and possible out-of-body experiences Hinds experienced during those sedentary days in his hospital bed. Upon first listen, “Oblivion” may give die-hard fans the impression that Mastodon are perhaps losing their edge; compared to their other albums (which typically blast out of the gate with a scorching lead track), “Oblivion” is an anomaly, setting a more brooding tone for their most spacious album to date. There is more melodic singing, less screaming and grunting, and increasing emphasis on space and time. Oblivion goes not for a flurry of ham-fisted punches to the gut, but instead opts for slow-burning ethereal riffing expanding out into gusts of green mist.
“Oblivion” bleeds into lead single “Divinations,” which like Black Sabbathís titular song, gallops out Hadesí gate with a furious aplomb. The track commences with a banjo intro before its string phrases weave seamlessly with Dailorís inhumanly intense drumming. Its entwined guitar lines snake around the listenerís head before burgeoning into a momentously melodic chorus. “No escape/ Binding spirits/ No escape/ Trapped in time space,” croons bassist Troy Sanders in a shockingly harmonious manner. But just because there is a newfound emphasis on melodic harmonization doesnít mean Mastodon have lost those sphincter-clenching bellows that made them so well known. After Sanderís chorus, Hinds roars and screams like he never has before, “Rapid descendants, the wormhole is empty,” growls Hinds, signaling a void that must be filled, a passageway that begs for some entity to fill its space. “The magnet of wisdom is pulling,” he continues to implore. The themes of preternatural forces, wormholes, and giant universal brains pulling spirits near is a perfect analogy for the sensations engendered by Mastodonís laser-guided songcraft.
On “Quintessence,” Mastodon utilizes an interplay of guitar phrases that’s become another trademark of their unique sound. Serpentine riffs wind around the listeners head and binds them into paralysis, as a flurry of inverted 13ths, impossible time signatures, double helix coils of riffs and bubbling synths all converge into a mosh pit-inducing thrash breakdown before diving into a glorious chorus, an admitted nod to the post-hardcore group sing-alongs of Fugazi, which showcases an unwillingness for Mastodon to stay within their safety zones. As the track fades out into a homage to Mike Oldfeldís Tubular Bells, it blends into the first of two epic 10+ minute tracks. “The Czar” is a four-part suite that details the usurpation, escape, martyrdom and eventual astral projection of the soul that embodies Rasputin. It’s an undulating piece of space-funk that details the real-life trials and tribulations of Rasputin, who after being stabbed, beaten, poisoned, shot, bound, and thrown into the river, still only died from having his lungs submerged with water. Itís a testament to the will of mystic power, and parallels can be drawn from the story of Rasputin to the story of Mastodon, who after getting knocked down, just keeps coming back stronger than ever.
Although the four suites of “The Czar” last nearly 11 minutes, it’s not the longest track on the album. That honor goes to closer “The Last Baron,” which, clocking in at 13 minutes exactly, follows a similar vignette template as that of “The Czar.” The beginning of the track finds Hinds exultantly intoning “I guess they would say/ We could set the world ablaze.” Its 13 minutes of build-ups, denouements, and metal meanderings is perhaps Mastodon’s most triumphant moment, a killer way to end a killer album.
Mastodon has publicly stated that their aim is to make albums in the same spirit as that of their heroes Metallica, and like those mid-period records like Ride the Lightning or Master of Puppets, Crack the Skye has the feel of a classic metal album, steeped in impressive musicianship and stylized construction; it’s the kind of album you can repeatedly rock out to without ever feeling the desire to skip even one moment of its sprawling majesty.