Sunday, April 12, 2009

Czarist Russia?

Crack the Skye (2009)
Rating: 9.0 (out of 10)

There are few better feelings than just really getting into something. You know, really letting it get in your skin, flow through your veins. When you can just let your raw emotions be hijacked, taken over by grace or force, it's a glorious thing. You can lose your constraints and just let go for just a little bit. You can forget your thankless job, your interpersonal problems, your inability to communicate, your terrible golf score last Wednesday, or whatever else it is that's been bothering you. Everyone has been there, where you just lose youself in a whirlwind of...something. For me, my whirlwind has always been comprised of music. From time to time, the right song or record hits me so, so hard that it hurts (in the good way), and for the third time in a half-decade, Atlanta's fantastic Mastodon have beaten me to within an inch of my life (again, in the good way).

Since their inception into the metal realm, Mastodon have been getting progressively, well more progressive. Gone is much of the gutteral howling, some of the relentless churning, and a few of the moments of complete and total mean-ass facefuckery. I don't mind at all, though. This is a band that's done balls-to-the-wall, face-punch metal before, and it's okay that they're calming down just a little bit on Crack the Skye.

Don't get me wrong, though; Skye still kicks ass. Whether it be the post-noodling riffage of "Oblivion," the giant hammer drop after the intro on the title track, or the more mind numbing portions of "The Czar", Mastodon haven't lost their ability to really tear shit up. All I'm saying is that, in the tradition of 2006's Blood Mountain (now probably adorned with my 2006 Hindsight Album of the Year tag), there are more sonic shifts here, more attempts at singing, and more opportunities to try and dissect the usual bizarre story the band is trying to tell. The other well-documented factor in play here is the production change from Matt Bayles to mainstream stalwart Brendan O'Brien. Rest assured, O'Brien's presence is not a problem. Despite this one really awful dream I had, he doesn't have Troy Sanders wearing a wig, and there aren't any songs that have shit to do with anything Papa Roach might write about.

This time around, drummer Brann Dailor has decided to go completely off the rails in his concept for the album. From my understanding, what we're dealing with here is a conceptual story about a parapalegic boy who inhabits the body of Rasputin through time travel. Yeah. More to the point, the record's name pays homage to Dailor's late sister Skye, who died far, far too early. So, while I haven't been able to decipher any metaphors explicitly pointing to it, Dailor may have another storyline under the floorboards here. At any rate, Crack the Skye features more actual singing, so give the lyrics and a listen and see what you come up with. It's fun if nothing else.

Another Mastodon trademark that remains untouched is the musicianship in place here; the band weaves between time signatures and in between song suites like they came out of the womb doing this shit. One minute the band has digressed into a psychedellic breakdown, the next they're churning through something that might scare a child or senior citizen. It's truly amazing, and it makes me love music. "Divinations" is one of the strongest tracks here, showcasing equal parts screaming and singing, equal parts proggy barrage and metal scowl. It makes me want to drive really, really fast and not bother stopping for anything at all. "The Czar" turns a hazy introductory segment into a mood-altering force to be reckoned with, while closer "The Last Baron" just fucks with us over and over and over again, jumping all over the map and leaving the listener wanting more of the juiciest parts. It's almost like Mastodon leads us to the figurative well to get some water and then pushes us in, only to later offer a hand to help us out. But we know better than to take it.

Crack the Skye is another tour de force from a band that has grown to specialize in such. It falls slightly short of Blood Mountain and probably Leviathan (2004) for me, but that's not a bad thing. Each of the last three Mastodon outings possess their own identity, their own strengths. All of the progressive, jazzy, and psych elements present on this album leave me inclined to wonder exactly what these southern bastards intend to do next. All I know is I'll be awaiting it with open arms and ears, reading to receive my bloody beating once again.

My Eyes Hath Seen Movies

Seven Pounds (2008)
Starring: Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Michael Ealy
Directed By: Gabriele Muccino
Rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

One of the most-discussed aspects of Seven Pounds is its emotional clout, and there's good reason for that. It is the biggest driving force behind everything that goes on here. As viewers, we spend around 90 minutes without really fully knowing what is going on, and we do so to get to the emotional apex we're lead to. While this conclusion is somewhat gratifying, and while it does tug at the heartstrings for sure, it's clear Muccino could have trimmed the fat and made the proceedings a bit less over-the-top.

Seven Pounds begins by showing Will Smith's character, Ben Thomas, huddled in a bathroom while calling 911 to report his own suicide. Things only get stranger from there. We learn that Thomas is an IRS agent who takes special interest in seemingly everyone he meets. Thomas visits all sorts of places to meet those who have tax problems, whether it be the hospital or their own homes. But what we notice about Thomas isn't that he's dedicated to his job, but that he seems dedicated to doing extravagantly nice things for people he doesn't really know. However, Muccino confounds us by also showing Thomas in a much different light, such as when he phones a meat company to complain about bad pork. Thomas winds up berating a blind salesman named Ezra (Woody Harrelson), and even calls the man's handicap into question. By the end of the phone call Thomas has asked Ezra if he's "ever even had sex before." So as you can see, in the earlygoing, it's very difficult to know what to make of Thomas.

One of the recipients of Thomas' charitable work is Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), a young woman with heart problems whom Thomas gives an extension on money she owes to the IRS. What Thomas doesn't count on is that he falls in love with Posa and even her dog, Duke. He finds himself drawn to her, even if he knows he maybe shouldn't get so close. Several times it's very evident that Ben wants to kiss Emily, but he holds back. Seven Pounds continues forth in this manner, drawing us in and pushing us away, not really pulling back much of the curtain covering what's really going on until the last possible moment. We get hints, but we aren't likely to piece them together until much later.

The professionalism with which Will Smith handles the portrayal of Ben Thomas is absolutely what drives home the film's emotional climax. Smith wears the aches and pains of his character so, so well. Each big moment gives him another chance to shine, another chance to present Ben as a terribly conflicted man who is clearly headed toward something bigger through the film's duration. Rosario Dawson is quite good as well, as she makes Emily someone we truly like. She shows Emily as a scared woman who wants to share her life and wants to give her love, even if she may not have long to give it.

As I said in the opening paragraph, though, this movie's extremely solid build-up should have probably been given an ending devoid of well, bullshit. While I won't divulge the details here, I'll go on record as saying that the actual events that occur are mostly effective, but they could have been presented in a much more subtle, much less bombastic manner. This doesn't affect the film to a great degree, but just enough to frustrate me. What was a truly engaging and interesting movie shifts into an emotional wreck. And that's fine. But for the love of God, did everything have to get so huge and meaningful? Over-the-top emotional pomp aside, Seven Pounds is particularly arresting, and you certainly won't get bored. Add to that the performances of the two primaries and you have yourself a film well worth spending your time on.