From the moment I heard the pummeling “Crusher Destroyer” from their landmark debut Remission some 15 years ago, I knew Mastodon were something special. My infatuation with Remission began a love affair with the band that bordered on fanboy-ism from one excellent album to the next, each a stirring and adventurous behemoth of sludge metal force and progressive smarts. However, my relationship with Mastodon started to get rocky when they followed their sprawling prog masterwork Crack the Skye with 2011’s The Hunter. It wasn’t that The Hunter was an inherently bad album, it simply found Mastodon playing it too safe, simplifying their sound into streamlined sludge rock with songs that were easily remembered in the short term, but ultimately disposable. 2014’s Once More ‘Round the Sun was an improvement, adding a touch more color and proggy weirdness, but failed to produce a lasting impact. With creativity smoldering, Mastodon return to stoke the fire on their seventh LP, Emperor of Sand.
Mastodon’s triple pronged vocal attack, excellent drumming and penchant for writing booming sludge rock hooks remains, albeit in the band’s more palatable recent context. However, in the lead-up to the album’s release there were throwback signs hinting of a band hoping to recapture their former glory. From the artwork, re-emergence of their original logo, even the album title and concept smacked of a return to Mastodon’s deeper roots and prime songwriting. The basic concept at hand follows the path of a wandering individual handed a death sentence by a desert ruler and left trudging through a wasteland. Basically, it’s a metaphor for the band members personal connections with cancer sufferers and the heartbreak, loss and roller-coaster of emotions these experiences entailed, lending a strong emotional resonance that is heard and felt throughout. Unfortunately, Emperor of Sand isn’t a return to the band’s glory days, but it’s a step in the right direction.
“Sultan’s Curse” is the strongest opener the band has penned in a long time, taking the best parts of The Hunter and mixing it with the muscular riffs and hepped-up energy of Blood Mountain, sporting emotive and stirring vocal melodies during its latter half. Musically, the excellent “Steambreather” evokes Alice In Chains underrated self-titled album, bolstered by Brann Dailor’s catchy vocal melodies, stellar drumming and overall impressive rock dynamics. Like or hate their individual styles, the improvement in Mastodon’s vocal arsenal has been significant, and jointly the trio are responsible for numerous rousing moments, trade-offs and memorable choruses. For example, “Word to the Wise” gets the balance right, as Troy Sanders’ burly verses contrast effectively against Dailor’s catchy melodic chorus, further bolstered by some scorching guitar work. Elsewhere, the groovy “Clandestiny” injects a quirky bed of spacey synths in an oddly welcoming mid-song psych detour, while the tender closing epic “Jaguar God” plays up the band’s more adventurous nature and love of prog. Nearly all the songs hit the mark to some degree, although “Show Yourself” is a semi-irritating tune that gets stuck in your head, but is brought down by clunky lyrics, irritating verses and a generic Queens of the Stone Age groove. Thankfully it’s the only notable sore spot in an otherwise catchy and solid collection of tunes.
One element of the Mastodon sound that has avoided the band’s overall simplification is Dailor’s exceptional drumming. The dude brings an abundance of awesome fills and tight, technical rhythms to the equation, playing with multi-limb finesse and tons of energy, enlivening the more straightforward and stock standard elements of their familiar sound. While Brent Hinds and right hand man Bill Kelliher dish up their most inspired and technical playing since Crack the Skye, retaining their signature style and bringing a stronger array of serpentine leads, burly riffs and scorching solos to compliment their idiosyncratic prog tendencies. Recorded by Brendan O’Brien, the production is solid enough and par for the course for a modern Mastodon album, sounding bright, punchy and suitably detailed, though lagging in dynamics.
Listeners expecting a return to the classic old days of Leviathan or Crack the Skye won’t find much solace in what Emperor of Sand has to offer. But those who have kept the faith during Mastodon’s patchy recent era will be rewarded by a tight batch of trademark modern Mastodon tunes, featuring skyscraper hooks, playful prog and a more focused and adventurous take on their refined sludge rock. Take it with a grain of salt if you will, but Emperor of Sand is the best Mastodon release since Crack the Skye and a fun and addictive rock album in its own right.