Mastodon have been one of my all-time favorite bands ever since I first heard Blood Mountain and Crack The Skye in high school, in my early years of exploring the vast world of metal music. I was enamored not just by the intensity and titanic grand scale of their sound, but also the ambitiousness of their songwriting and the offbeat, weird, and creative tangents they would often delve into. Since that time, every subsequent Mastodon release has been sort of an event for me, and they are now back with their 7th studio album, Emperor of Sand. While it’s hard to tell what exactly every new Mastodon album will bring, there was much to suggest that this would be a sort of return to their first 4 releases. The album art and title font evoked the same stylistic choices as those releases, and the band teamed up with producer Brendan O’Brien, who worked with them prior on Crack The Skye. On top of that, it was billed as a concept album, a musical approach that had been abandoned on their past two albums, about a desert wanderer sentenced to death. Even with all that in mind though, there’s always surprises to be found, and that becomes apparent as soon as you press play.
The album opens up with “Sultan’s Curse,” which was released as the first single. An unsettling chime/bell intro segues into a tight 6/8 groove, complete with massive sludgy riffs and pummeling drums. Combined with the hazy vibes of the chorus and bridge/solo, especially the swirling mix of guitar chords and melodies during the latter, it makes for a quintessential Mastodon track and a killer album opener. Unfortunately, that great start comes to an immediate grinding halt with the second track “Show Yourself,” a painfully dull southern hard rock jam that’s neck and neck with “The Motherload” for the single weakest song the band has ever written. The pairing of these two tracks right out of the gate creating an uncomfortable set of expectations, as I was wondering if the entire album was just going to veer back and forth between great and mediocre. Well…
The most positive thing that can be said about Emperor of Sand is how much the music commits to the conceptual ideas intended, as the songwriting consistently suggests the sensation of wandering the desert, forever subjected to the unavoidable haze of the blazing sun. One of the best tracks to convey this sensation is “Steambreather,” as it opens with a bubbling cracking synth leading into a rumbling low-end guitar part almost reminiscent of the Remission days (which can also be said of the outro), combined with plenty of fuzz as the lead guitars howl and echo over the verses. The drums keep things steady throughout as they mix with hints of tambourine and maracas for that very southern feeling (and these percussive elements persist throughout the record). “Roots Remain,” while not one of my favorite cuts on the record, contributes to this with a solid chorus that captures the sense of desperation from being stranded in these circumstances for so long, as well as the album closer “Jaguar God,” in which the wanderer seems to have made peace with their inevitable death.
To balance out some of the more emotional digressions on the album, the song also includes some hard-hitting metal bangers, with the absolute centerpiece being “Word To The Wise.” The main verse riff is razor-sharp and quite meaty, and the chorus is the kind of massive passage that I live for when it comes to Mastodon’s music. It’s overly dramatic and incredibly manic, presenting the protagonist’s desperation in a more immediate and intense way. “Andromeda” is similarly pummeling and the most dissonant track on the album, as everything from the verse riffs to even the melodic segments give the listener a sense of uncomforting disorientation, and the outro is particularly suffocating.
The best song on the album apart from “Sultan’s Curse” is the penultimate track “Scorpion Breath,” which is not just a succinct summation of everything heard on the album, but also a nice mix of elements from all across the band’s discography. The intro banjo piece sounds like it was taken straight from Crack The Skye, the verses utilize riffs and drum beats comparable to Leviathan and Blood Mountain, and even the chorus sounds like a faster version of “Spectrelight” from The Hunter. The aforementioned “Jaguar God” is also similarly experimental: the moody and somber tone of the first two minutes gives way to a soaring proggy passage in the next two minutes, only for the song to take a break from this and go into a phenomenally hard-hitting groove for a good chunk of time. It’s a great closing track.
While there’s a lot to like about this album, there’s some problems that hold it back from being on par with Mastodon’s best releases. The hurdle created by the mediocrity of “Show Yourself” alone should be somewhat of a tip-off, and the following track “Precious Stones” doesn’t alleviate that feeling much, being just another lame hard rock jam. Other songs on the album have certain highlights or cool ideas that unfortunately get drowned out by songwriting that feels like it was left over from Once More Round The Sun. “Roots Remain” has a cool intro with its trippy spacey keyboards, but the rest of the song (especially the chorus and bridge) do little to excite or engage. “Clandestiny” comes across like a forgotten Baroness b-side, but the middle passage is rather distinct, layering various synth melodies together in a cosmic vibe reminiscent of drummer Brann Dailor’s side project Arcadea. And then there’s “Ancient Kingdom,” the clunkiest song on the album, as it can never seem to decide what mood to settle on. The song tries to have intense and uncomforting moments, but they’re unfortunately undercut by the triumphant feeling of the chorus and a bizarrely chipper solo that clashes with just about everything else.
Despite a handful of tracks that feel like uninspired filler, there’s still quite a bit of incredibly strong material here. The musicianship is still as tight as ever with their distinct tri-vocal dynamic and Brann’s dynamic drum work, and quite a few songs can go toe-to-toe with Mastodon’s best. If the album had purged the weaker songs and further tightened up the good ones, it would be an instant classic. As it stands now, Emperor of Sand is a step in the right direction, a solid recovery from their last release, and it’s worth a listen or two.
Verdict: Buy it if you’re a diehard fan, and Stream It if this would be your first Mastodon record.
Emperor of Sand is available from Reprise Records on CD, vinyl, digital download, and online streaming.