Genre: Stoner Metal
Producer: Brendan O’Brien
Release Date: March 31, 2017
The Atlanta metal quartet Mastodon is one of the biggest metal bands of the new millennium. Their trademark mixture of progressive metal, sludge, and jazz elements layered with some subdued hooks has netted them a bunch of Grammy nominations, headliner spots on festivals around the globe, and whenever a music magazine makes any sort of “Best Metal Albums of All Time” list, it is likely that any (or all) their records from the previous decade show up.
However, on their 2011 album The Hunter the band made a swift pivot in their sound, trimming the heaviest progressive frills and kinks, streamlining their song structures, and dropping a good three minutes off their average track length. The transition was not painless, and the fans of their old material were eager to slam the Sellout card on the table. Only on the follow-up Once More ‘Round the Sun the band managed to make proper use of their new format, although some fans deemed it too ‘radio-friendly’ as well.
While over the years the band has shifted its sound from early Opeth closer to The Sword, they have always managed to sound like Mastodon. Their seventh full-length record, Emperor of Sand, is no exception; if anything, it veers back towards their earlier, more aggressive sound, while still keeping with the more streamlined aesthetic. Tracks like “Ancient Kingdom” and “Scorpion Breath” even feature some raspier, rougher vocals reminiscent of the band’s Leviathan-era death metal growls. Fortunately, the band is not just wallowing in its own nostalgia: while complex polyrhythms and shredding solos galore, whenever it feels like the album veers a bit too close to the band’s older material, the music mixes the things up. The jutting groove dominating the verses of “Steambreather” shifts naturally into the galloping, catchy choruses; the C-part of “Clandestiny” combines tremolo-picked mandolin with spacey keyboards and robotic vocoder vocals. For the first time for Mastodon, the emotional core of the album seems to encompass other feelings than band’s trademark blind fury. The deeply sorrowful, keyboard-driven breakdown of “Roots Remain” and the wistful acoustic opening of “Jaguar God” both showcase a side of Mastodon that we haven’t seen before.
Emperor of Sand is a concept album about a man sentenced to death on a desert by his sultan, and appropriately the lyrical themes reflect on death and mortality. The band has revealed that the whole story is allegorical to the band’s experiences with cancer, but the album wraps the grim theme into a lofty, poetic form, a mystical journey over the vast sandlands, akin to an ancient epic or a folk tale.
While Emperor of Sand still contains eleven roughly four-and-half minute tracks, something the fans of their earlier material might deem a deadly sin, it also melds the tracks together to form a coherent whole, which is helped by the unified lyrical theme. In many ways, Emperor of Sand is a marriage of Mastodon’s might and mastery; their progressive past and straightforward present.