Mastodon – Emperor of Sand (Released March 31, 2017 – Reprise Records)
I may be dating myself but, when I first got into metal the year was 2010 and, being the close of a decade, every metal website and blogger was pumping out their ‘Top x of the 00s’ lists. I binged on those lists for months and that is where my relationship with Mastodon began. Time and time again the album sitting in the No. 1 spot was Leviathan accompanied by the video for ‘Blood and Thunder’, it was not love at first listen. It took me a long time to understand how to appreciate the shear fury and angularity of the riffs and the utter harshness of the vocals. Slowly Mastodon climbed the ranks of my favourite bands, rising from someone I completely ignored to resting alongside the likes of Iron Maiden and Opeth. This rocky relationship with Mastodon; the happiness gained from Remission, Leviathan, and Crack the Skye, the confusion of Blood Mountain, and the initial betrayal but understanding that accompanied the releases of The Hunter and Once More ‘Round the Sun left me externally excited but internally tentative as the release date for Emperor of Sand approached.
Eccentric and seeped in confusion and anger, Emperor of Sand, the fourth concept album in Mastodon’s discography, explores the impact of cancer on the bands life through embracing dissonant and conflicting sounds and emotions. Turning to earlier works in their discography, Mastodon pull together trippy psychedelia and dirty, angular riffs which combine to continue the spastic evolution of their sound.
Sultan’s Curse opens the album with a shake of bells then dives into a driving riff and the roars of Troy Sanders which give way to a gorgeous rattle-y soundscape over which Brent Hinds delivers his nasally whine. Halfway through a tipping point is reached and it tumbles headlong into pure psychedelia before closing on Brent’s first masterful solo. It is hard not to find the similarity in sound between Sultan’s Curse and Crack the Skye as the main driving riff could have been pulled directly from the peak of Mastodon’s sound. Where Sultan’s Curse embraces old Mastodon, Show Yourself is a complete foil and is fast, poppy, and a total earworm. The introduction of Brann Dailor’s silky vocals to the album, Show Yourself is pure fun and is entirely empty calories. Stumbling a little, Precious Stones features an opening and closing riff which sound like something from Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf. The chorus is cringe-y but the midsection narrowly saves the song with a groovy descending run which transitions into another brilliant solo from Brent. Slowing down to a crunchy groove, Steambreather oozes forward, picking up for a sticky sweet chorus and an up-tempo bridge before returning to the percussive riffing of Bill Kelliher. Roots Remain begins with a crushing riff before turning into a spacey psychedelic journey. Easily the strangest track it features a demonic growling and closes with a piano section. Word to the Wise has a dangerous feel about it with angry riffs and dueling guitar leads. The laid-back solo evolves into squealing bends before returning to Brann’s massive chorus and the angry riffs. Nearly transcendent and the happiest song on the album, Ancient Kingdom has the feeling of a hymn with big saturated vocal layering and a soothing bell section. Bill comes to play on Clandestiny as Remission style angularity is paired with the pop and melodic styles of OMRTS and features synths and groaning buzzy vocals. It brings together an array of sounds and is a schizophrenic jubilee of noise. Andromeda has a distinctive massive riff which is offset by Brann’s melodic chorus and Brent’s slow burning solo. The track closes by devolving into pure fury as Kevin Sharp provides crushing roars. Scorpion Breath is the sixth installment of Mastodon feat. Scott Kelly and is the biggest track on the album. Kelly’s deep roars paired with Troy’s distinct vocalization are a pair united in hell and give the track a cavernous depth. The utter destruction of the track is perfectly complimented by the bright leads Bill adds in the middle. Opening as a ballad Jaguar God is pushed forward by Brent’s vocals and Brann’s rolling drums. The track breaks away from the ballad with a sudden heavy transition and spirals into a terrestrial darkness populated by synths and sweet vocals. The track exits the darkness into the corn fields of Kansas with an isolated country-swing style run which turns into proggy off time weirdness and closes with a thankful return to cohesion as it revisits the opening picked section over which Brent ends the album with a soulful shred.
It took me a good three listens to begin to appreciate what Emperor of Sand holds and once I could collect my thoughts the album clicked with me. ‘Click’ though, does not mean I was blown away by the entire package. Some sections stood out; Brent outdid himself and was the clear hero of the album, upping his game each time it came for him to solo. Recording inside the moon (damn surface permits) gave him a clarity as he unearthed an individual gem each time his fingers stole away to play. The pure nostalgia of Sultan’s Curse and the fun of Show Yourself were standout moments and a perfect opening one-two punch. The crushing trifecta of Word to the Wise, Clandestiny, and Scorpion Breath; Scott Kelly is brilliant in his appearance, were everything I wanted and, while not as crushing, Roots Remain was an exciting display of every stylistic choice coming together in perfection. That perfection was lost in other places as the album failed to find a cohesion. Brann’s gorgeous voice was used ad nauseum which caused it to lose its impact on sticky sweet chorus after sticky sweet chorus and in other places the powerful dissonance came together in subtraction, like whatever happened on Precious Stones and Jaguar God.
There is a lot of confusion on Emperor of Sand. Mastodon’s sound continues to evolve as instead of continuing with formulaic pop rock they explored a bit and came together to create a sprawling and rangy behemoth which roared at moments before stumbling over itself. Schizophrenic in nature Emperor of Sand screams with an anger and sadness but, in the end, finds peace, even if I was left confused and looking for more.