Emperor of Sand

Mastodon

Mastodon's latest album Emperor of Sand has taken the place that Dillinger Escape Plan's Dissociation had in my life last year; I've been listening to it non-stop since its release on March 31.

The first single off the record, "Show Yourself", is typical single-material, but not typical Mastodon-material: it's uncharacteristically straightforward and accessible. Though it seems like an extention of what the band pulled with High Road (off 2014's Once More 'Round the Sun) and Curl of the Burl (off 2011's The Hunter), this move worried some long time fans - including myself - who feared Mastodon were going for a more commercial sound.

In reality, it seems Mastodon is continuing to expand their repertoire. Constantly changing, they've yet to release a bad record in my opinion.

Drummer Brann Dailor really shows of his singing chops on this record, which just keep getting better. This does come at the further expense of the barrage of complicated fills that used to be just about everywhere. However, Mastodon has been on a trajectory towards a more traditional sound - which could be described as creepy classic rock meets prog meets heavy metal - ever since 2009's Crack the Skye, so this isn't completely unexpected. He does rock out with various percussion at many places throughout the record, though.

On another note, Emperor of Sand sees a return to story-driven concept-album, the last of which was three records ago. Previous records in this vein include:

  • Leviathan: About Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick
  • Blood Mountain: A psychedellic climb atop a mountain that holds a crystal skull
  • Crack the Skye: an homage to drummer Brann Dailor's sister, who took her own life at fourteen, dealing with a paraplegic who astral travels and gets stuck in the spirit realm - only to seek help from cultists in tsarist Russia, including Rasputin himself.

Inspired by cancer diagnoses and deaths in the lives of several of the band members, the record is a sort of reflection on mortality, where story can be seen as a metaphor for the journey of a cancer patient.

The band used producer Brendan O'Brien, who also produced Crack the Skye, which is particularly evident in a few of the full, almost pad-sounding, three-part harmonies in some of the choruses.

Album opener "Sultan's Curse" is reminiscent of "Black Tongue" and "High Road" off of the band's previous two albums in that it contains many elements that are typical of the band - but still fresh, as well as accessible for newcomers.

One of the record's highlights is an extremely groovy track called "Steambreather". The song is surprisingly downbeat and technically uncomplicated, which is not to say it's uneventful - the small flourishes here and there are really cool.

Another highlight is when the first powerful chorus of "Ancient Kingdom" transitions to a blistering, yet tasteful solo courtesy of Brent Hinds - or the dirtiest of all the B-Hindses, as he refers to himself.

The album closer, Jaguar God, is SO GOOD. Opening almost ballad-like, it showcases a previously unheard mellow side of Brent Hinds, before going off the rails and barreling into a 70s prog-type thing with some Ghost-like melodic features.

Though I feel that Brent Hinds is getting a bit sloppy (and I emphasize "a bit" yet again), with some of the more obviously improvised solos suffering from poor timing on a few notes here and there. I also think it sounds like there's a bit of recycling of old licks and phrasings going on in a few places.

All in all, Emperor of Sand is a great record. Though the album is not as technically challenging as their earlier work, it's an uncompromising and focused effort - and in my opinion the most interesting record Mastodon has released since Crack the Skye.

Update Sept. 7th 2017

In the vein of some of their earlier videos, featuring puppet nightmares and the psychedelic adventures of a cat, Mastodon recently released a hilarious video for Steambreather:

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