One of the finest acts in progressive metal is back once more and they have their seventh studio album in tow. Mastodon present their fourth concept album Emperor of Sand, a story about life, death and the battle against cancer.
US-American Mastodon have been around since the beginning of the 2000s and as they are closing in on almost two decades of being a band, they have a pretty impressive catalog to look back on. Not only does the band boast a rock-solid line-up that has been consistent for the entire course of their career, these four guys have also released some of the most critically acclaimed albums of the last decade.
Mastodon’s 2004 release Leviathan was their first concept album and losely dealt with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as well as constituting the element water in the grand scheme of the band’s first four albums, each focussing on a certain element. Leviathan was exceptionally well received and was often cited as the best album of 2004 and one of the best albums of the last decade. The following album, Blood Mountain, saw the band depart from their heavily sludge metal influenced sound and emphasize the progressive elements of their music. Though a bit shaky on its feet, Blood Mountain laid the foundation for what would be the band’s next milestone release. In 2009, Mastodon came out with Crack the Skye, a record that once more went down in history as one of the most important albums of it’s genre as the band’s take on progressive metal reached new heights. Crack the Skye received numerous Album of the Year positions and was praised by many as not only the best album of 2009, but also one of the most important progressive metal releases of the last decade. Additionally, Crack the Skye was the last entry to the overarching concept of the band’s first four albums as it constituted the aether, the soul and spirit of all things.
The band was free to do whatever they wanted now and explore new territories with their sound. Entering the 2010s, Mastodon came out with what could be considered their most polarizing album The Hunter in 2011. Mastodon stuck with their progressive sound and added influences of rock and other progressive acts such as Opeth to their music. Many long time fans found the album to be “too soft”, however, I personally still consider The Hunter to be Mastodon’s strongest release to date as it poses not only a beautifully diverse progressive metal album but also saw the band polish and improve their sound in many more subtle ways. The band came back three years later with Once More ‘Round The Sun, which was the first Mastodon album to be covered on the still very young Noise Vortex back in 2014.
Mastodon’s latest effort, Emperor of Sand, sonically starts where Once More ‘Round The Sun left off and sees the band add new nuances to their style as they tell the tale of a wastewanderer sentenced to death that symbolizes themes of life and death and experiences that the bandmembers made in the years between their previous album and this one, involving the battle against cancer.
One of the worries that I carried with me into this album was the continued simplification of Mastodon’s songwriting, something that the band has been criticized for in the past already. I suspected that this album might be the tipping point where the band’s music finally lost its draw in favor of accessibility. As a fan of the bands most recent releases, however, I was also hopeful that they would be able to pull it off and to cut to the chase: they did. The band’s core sound and virtues are still intact, though it is undeniable that the band once more simplified their songwriting. Fans of the band’s more expansive songs such as The Last Baron or Hearts Alive will have to be satisfied with the album closer, Jaguar God, that I will touch on later.
Emperor of Sand is off to a solid but not very memorable start as the two songs that were already released as promotional singles kick off the album. Save for a quite grand section at the beginning of the last quarter of the song, Sultan’s Curse is an enjoyable track that ultimately can’t exert as much staying power as some of the stronger tracks on the album. Next up we have Show Yourself, which is probably the most accessible song the band has ever written. The songwriting for this track is rather weak as there is no proper intro or outro and the entire song is basically built around a single pattern, but it is also almost annoyingly catchy and doesn’t overstay its welcome with only about three minutes of playtime.
The fifth track, Roots Remain, signifies a shift in the mood of the album as the band carries on with the energetic verses but invokes a strong sense of pathos in the second half of the track as Mastodon introduce some glockenspiel to support Brann Dailor’s captivating vocal performance that precedes a cathartic guitar solo that transitions into a somber piano outro. Word to the Wise kicks up the intensity again with its great flow, Troy Sander’s smoky vocals and the catchy choruses. Following that we have Ancient Kingdom, my personal favorite on this album. The song starts off backed by some warping synths and brings back the glockenspiel during its nostalgic and pathos-filled chorus and climax. By this point, the band has made it pretty clear that despite the simplified songwriting, they’re still very ambitious when it comes to the “raw ingredients” of their sound. Be it the fleshed out middle-eastern vibes all throughout the album, the psychedelic space-rock synths on Clandestiny, the glockenspiel on the aforementioned tracks or the complex, Burnt by the Sun-influenced main riff on Andromeda, the band is still very ambitious when it comes to the added instrumentation in the form of synthezisers, bells and percussion such as tambourines, movers and shakers and many many more.
As is tradition for the band, Scott Kelly of Neurosis also once more joins Mastodon on the vocals for the track Scorpion Breath. Similarly the signature playstyles of the bandmembers are still around, including Brann Dailor’s sprawling and overflowing drumming and Brent Hinds’ playful, bright and cathartic guitar playing. Brent Hinds did a great job on this album with his guitar solos, perhaps most notably on the album closer, Jaguar God. The song starts off as an acoustic ballad that has Hinds’ on the vocals with his most intimate performance to date and his guitar solo at the end of the song gently guides us out of the room as the curtain falls on Mastodon’s seventh album.
That being said, Emperor of Sand doesn’t quite reach the same amount of artistic integrity as some of the band’s past releases. The songwriting, as I already mentioned, definitely suffered in favor of accessibility and continued mass-appeal. Additionally, despite being supposed to be read “between the lines”, some of the album’s core themes and the overarching concept aren’t very cohesive. As with many high-budget metal albums nowadays, Emperor of Sand is also quite overpolished and overproduced. Some of the more abrasive sections on the album lack the grit that they need as a result of that.
In the end, Mastodon came through with a solid album that has some strong highlights and makes up the lack of ambition in the songwriting department with the band’s continuous thirst for experimentation and skill in adding texture and nuance to their sound as well as some catchy and memorable choruses. Emperor of Sand makes for an enjoyable listen and a worthy entry to the band’s discography.