EMPEROR OF SAND by Mastodon
Genre: Progressive Metal
Favorite Tracks: “Steambreather,” “Word to the Wise,” “Ancient Kingdom,” “Andromeda”
Metal, especially more extreme forms of metal, has more die-hard fanatics and die-hard haters than any genre out there. Mastodon was one of the few acts to accumulate fans from both sides of the divide, and they became something of a critical darling, attracting praise from many other musicians as well. It’s not hard to see why; they took a lot of obvious influences but were still very original, they had loads of instrumental and songwriting talent, and they could produce ambitious concept albums and 14-minute-long songs about Moby Dick and meeting Rasputin via astral projection while also having a catchiness, pop sensibility, and sense of fun that most extreme metal bands wouldn’t dare to have.
Nonetheless, the band hit a tipping point and alienated some hardcore fans on their fifth and six records, THE HUNTER and ONCE MORE ROUND THE SUN, neither of which were concept albums and contained some of the band’s most radio-friendly material. Inspired by recent deaths in the family, they have decided to return to the concept album on EMPEROR OF SAND. Though it is by no means a return to the ferocity and visceral nature of LEVIATHAN or REMISSION, it builds off their previous two albums with cohesiveness and more progressive songwriting to produce their most emotional and dynamic record in years.
Mastodon’s greatest strength has always been their drumwork, and that has not changed. Brann Dailor is one of the most talented drummers in metal; his drum fills, work with the toms, and atpyical rhythms are still untouchable, and even on Mastodon’s most dumbed-down material, he can still be counted on to provide enough instrumental complexity to justify the label of “progressive.” Interestingly, there’s a lot more miscellaneous percussion, like the chimes on the opener “Sultan’s Curse” and the dramatic, bell-like cymbal hits on “Ancient Kingdom,” which are a bit too loud in the mix, but work well for atmospheric effect.
The omnipresence of clean vocals is nothing new and it’s been that way since their third record, but it’s still likely to turn off people. Each of the three different vocalists in Mastodon has their own distinct feel; Deilor is high-pitched and triumphant, Troy is wild and animalistic, and Hinds is eerie in an Ozzy Osbourne way. They are given fairly even time at the mic, and the order of vocalists is switched up enough to keep things interesting. More so than any previous record, the songs feature all three on vocals and add to the changing mood of each song, switching from youthful hopefulness from Hinds to fearfulness and urgency from Troy, eventually culminating in a surrender to despair.
Much like ONCE MORE ROUND THE SUN, EMPEROR OF SAND has a shaky first half. This is mostly due to Hinds’s overly-dramatic, shrill vocal performance and brutish drum beat on “Roots Remain” and the linear simplicity of “Show Yourself,” but the album hits a fantastic high after “Roots Remain” that continues to the end, apart from the odd vocoder effects leftover from BLOOD MOUNTAIN on “Clandestiny.” “Word to the Wise” and “Ancient Kingdom” are a one-two punch of the best of post-THE HUNTER Mastodon with a balance of catchy, colorful riffs and choruses with dynamic song structures and tempo changes, while “Andromenda” and “Scorpion God” provide rawness and spontaneity that has been sorely missing from some of their recent output.
From the very beginning, Mastodon have never been a band that has worked off of emotion, but EMPEROR OF SAND finds them dealing directly with death and cancer of family members. It tells the story of a doomed man walking through a desert searching desperately for salvation despite all signs pointing to the futility of such a thing. Especially in the second half, Mastodon does a great job of creating allegories for their own struggles with watching those close to them die and realizing there’s nothing they can do about it, like on “Andromeda,” with its horrified refrain of, “It never ends.” 7-minute closer “Jaguar God” ties up the storyline nicely, with its protagonist consenting and being sacrificed to the Aztec gods, providing an emotional catharsis for the band accepting the finite nature of life and our powerlessness in the face of fate. Previous concept records like LEVIATHAN and BLOOD MOUNTAIN were ambitious and entertaining in their zaniness and mythology, but they aren’t as personal and emotionally satisfying as EMPEROR OF SAND turned out to be.
REMISSION, LEVIATHAN, and BLOOD MOUNTAIN are some of my favorite records of all time, and they have cast a shadow on everything I have heard from Mastodon since. Even if I enjoyed their last two releases overall, I still longed for the genre-smashing, over-the-top wildness of their earliest records that I thought made them one of the best bands in metal. However, perhaps I misjudged what endeared them to so many, as sheer instrumental talent and a willingness to try new things, even if those things include transparently obvious attempts at Billboard success or music videos with twerking, have carried Mastodon far. EMPEROR OF SAND is the closest thing to a successful combination of post and pre-THE HUNTER Mastodon, and even finds a way to introduce a new emotional dimension for the band that proves Mastodon have no intentions of growing stale or predictable.