There are some people to whom Mastodon can do no wrong, and honestly it’s easy to see why that would be the case. The Atlanta quartet have one of the most consistent back catalogues of pretty much any band, and whatever direction they decide to go in usually turns out just as good – just look at their last two albums The Hunter and Once More ‘Round The Sun, a pivot away from the progressive metal of the past into a more condensed hard rock sound that still managed to work like gangbusters. As for the next step with Emperor Of Sand though, buzz suggested that the band would be returning to their proggier roots, a notion solidified by the return of Brendan O’Brien behind the production desk for the first time since their 2009 critical smash Crack The Skye.
In reality, Emperor Of Sand falls somewhere in the middle. Its sound remains grounded in burly, easily-digestible hard rock, but the ties have been loosened for a bit more expanse and intricacy to shine through. And, because this is a Mastodon album after all, there’s such a looseness and effortlessness to how the band throw out their sonic slabs that makes it so enrapturing. Brent Hinds’ and Bill Kelliher’s guitar work carries as much immense weight when condensed on Show Yourself as when it stretches and swoops across Roots Remain and the titanic build of closer Jaguar God, while Brann Dailor’s ever-underrated drumming is loose-limbed and frantic to the point of apocalyptic on tracks like Word To The Wise and the clear album standout Steambreather. Topped off with the three-way vocals from Hinds, Dailor and Troy Sanders weaving throughout and each with its own massively distinctive tone, Emperor Of Sand feels like Mastodon playing to every one of the numerous strengths and still coming out strong.
But really, did anyone expect anything different? Mastodon have been so consistent in quality for basically their entire career that seven albums in is ample time to reach a point where a sure-fire success is on lock. And honestly, that’s where Emperor Of Sand begins to falter, in that it is just another Mastodon album. That’s not to say that it’s a bad album – even Mastodon’s B-material holds up incredibly well on its own merits – but compared to an album like, say, Baroness’ Purple, or even their own Once More ‘Round The Sun where the audible progression from its predecessor really took precedence in its sound, Emperor Of Sand feels somewhat in stasis. As such it causes a couple of tracks like Scorpion Breath to feel lacking in terms of memorability and impact, and unfortunately that does mean it slinks further back in terms of Mastodon’s catalogue.
Having said that, there are few bands that take as much care in how their albums are written as Mastodon, and Emperor Of Sand once again sees the band flexing their conceptual muscles, this time centred around a man in exile being forced to wander the desert, but used as an allegory for the experiences of a number of the band’s loved ones in dealing with cancer. Even on a purely sonic level, the sort of gravitas needed for Mastodon’s narrative ambitions already feel realised, from the militant march of Sultan’s Curse that kicks off the album, to the oppressive heat the radiates from Precious Stones and Andromeda, to the warped, spacey synths and talkbox that punctuate Clandestiny, to the climatic ending of Jaguar God which spirals off into the ether with deliberate ambiguity about the fate of the protagonist.
It’s a credit to Mastodon’s work ethic that so much has been put into this album to create such a cohesive narrative, and while Emperor Of Sand feels so defiantly familiar that it can’t rise to greatness of the band’s classics, the fact that they’re still finding new lyrical routes to take and have maintained such a level of musical clout deserves to be celebrated. Besides, Emperor Of Sand only really stumbles in relative terms; in isolation, Mastodon are continuing to push modern metal to its limits in their own fascinating way.
For fans of: Baroness, The Sword, Queens Of The Stone Age
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Emperor Of Sand’ by Mastodon is out now on Reprise Records.