Emperor of Sand - Mastodon
Before we really get stuck into this review, it is probably pertinent that I admit a couple of things: I am one of those “I prefer the old stuff” guys when it comes Mastodon. Their first four LPs are among some of my favourites of all time, and The Hunter (2011) and Once More ‘Round the Sun (2014) just don’t come close in my eyes. That said, I am a veritable Mastodon fanboy and still enjoy the band that they have become; their post-Crack the Skye (2009) efforts have been easy listening at worst and pretty rad at best. So with the release of their latest album Emperor of Sand, I was fairly hyped.
Image Credit: Mastodon Official / Mastodon Rocks
A combination of things conspired to heighten the anticipation yet further. The return of the old style band logo and typical Mastodon concept, sick as fuck artwork, and the ‘Making of…’ webisodes all created a sense that this album was going to continue the refinement of the nu-Mastodon style seen on Once More…. I was not mistaken in this presumption.
But this is still the same Mastodon we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years, make no mistake. However, it feels as though the band really made a conscious effort to infuse as much of the plethora of influences and experimentations that they executed so successfully on their first four records as possible, while still retaining the more straightforward, accessible style they debuted with The Hunter.
If you were to compare this album to one of the first four, it would have to be Crack the Skye. It’s not quite as progged out (there aren’t two songs that break eleven minutes, though "Jaguar God" pushes eight), but psychedelic touches can be found on almost every single track. Whether it be some odd bells or tambourines subtly jingling in the background, or the slightly less subtle guitar and vocal effects found on tracks like "Roots Remain" and "Clandestiny", these trippy flourishes help to make this album a little less face-value and more rewarding on multiple listens.
"Show Yourself" video
Directed by Robert Schober
Produced by Kelsey Gilchrist
Art Direction by Theodor Zaleski
And of course, Bill Kelliher can still riff and Brent Hinds can still heckin’ shred. Satisfying riffage can be found on - to name a few - "Sultan’s Curse", "Steambreather" and "Andromeda" and rippin’ solos appear throughout. The main riff in "Andromeda" wouldn’t sound too out of place on Remission (2002) if Brent Hinds was screaming his guts out over the top of it, and there’s a moment on the closer "Jaguar God" that's very much akin to "Megalodon" off of Leviathan (2004). I feel it is lacking a monster riff like that of OMRTS’ "High Road", though, it must be said. Brann Dailor’s chops on the drums are also still solid as hell, but he really has toned it down a lot over the years, which is a damn shame if you ask me - the man used to be an animal!
Vocally, the increased focus on catchy hooks is blatant, but moderately successful. Some of Brent and Brann’s croons on this are really quite beautiful, and Scott Kelly’s token appearance on "Scorpion Breath" brings a refreshing dose of harsh vocals after nine tracks of singing. The vehicle of the concept, influenced by the deaths and battles with cancer faced by multiple band members’ loved ones over the years, also helps increase the emotional potency of the lyrics and overall atmosphere of the record.
With Emperor of Sand, we see Mastodon fully at peace with their new sound and ready to play with it a little bit more. However, when I listen to this record and all its nods to Remission, Leviathan, Blood Mountain (2006) and Crack the Skye I can’t help but think it would be better if they just wrote another record entirely like one of those. But I guess that’s my problem, and this album is still sick. It is Mastodon, after all.
Check out the 7-part 'Making of Emperor of Sand' documentary below