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.


Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Reprise Records
Websites: mastodonrocks.com | facebook.com/Mastodon
Releases Worldwide: March 31st, 2017

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  • ashcindersmoke

    I actually liked Once More ‘Round the Sun quite a bit. Very excited to listen to this. Great review.

  • Norwegian viking

    This album is so bad it hurts,realy. Reminds me of opeth and how they falter from greatness only to produce some generic shite. Just my subject opinion,so im immune to criticism ?

    • Did you like their previous records? Be honest.

      • Norwegian viking

        I loved the every album,crack the sky as well. I fell in love with them when they warmed up for Amon amarth in Norway back in the day.

        • I think you should give this another go around then. It’s a lot better than the previous two. But as always, YMMV. “Steambreather” is particularly tasty.

          • Norwegian viking

            Yeah,i wil guve it another spin ?

          • Josef Bachmeier

            Yeah the second half of the album is deluxe

    • Jm from nj

      Quite interesting that you liked the previous albums and not this…seems like a combo of “skye” and more recent stuff. Don’t see what’s not to like.

      • Norwegian viking

        Dont know,just sound generic to me. Maybe i have got more picky in my later years, but there is so much good and varried music out there,making this just seems like something boring.

  • Julien Robitaille

    What’s up with the potato quality of the cover picture ?

    • sir_c

      the emperor had some sand between his royal buttocks

      • Julien Robitaille

        Seems to be good now…

  • rumour_control

    Crack the Skye was their Ghost Reveries. Unlike Opeth, Mastodon chose to break from their peak-path mode in a depressingly simplified way, instead of a more creative route. This album continues the trend. Alas, if a CD drops in a barren forest, will there still be enough squirrels to hear it before the inevitable crash?

    • Reese Burns

      Just wanted to add my two cents here. Blackwater Park > Ghost Reveries. ;)

      • rumour_control

        Absolutely agree. But, I was referring to chronological growth. They still had a masterpiece in them after the glory that was Blackwater Park.

        • Reese Burns

          Haha, yeah. Blackwater Park blows me away with every listen (so does Ghost Reveries, though), it’s a shame we can’t get at least another album in that style.

          • Sean Sky

            We did. It’s called Sleep at the Edge of the Earth.

          • Josef Bachmeier

            THE SUN SETTTSSS FORREEVVVERRRRRRR

            OVER

            BLACK. WATER.

            PARRRRRRRRRKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK

          • Reese Burns

            Shit, what’s another good Blackwater Park quote… Oh! “UHG!”

          • Josef Bachmeier

            I always thought it was more of a “OOG” hahaha

          • Reese Burns

            Or maybe even “OOWUHG!”

      • Sean Sky

        Both are great. I’ve always been very partial to Blackwater Park, though. I also enjoy their recent stuff too.

        • Reese Burns

          I can’t get into their newer stuff, no matter how hard I try. But, you’re right, BP and GR are both excellent.

      • Julien Robitaille

        That made me think… We’re still waiting for that ‘From worst to best’ Opeth series…

      • Dr. Wvrm

        As ever, you are correct.

        • Reese Burns

          You’re my new favourite!

        • And so are you. I have been saying that for years….though I do love GR too.

          • Josef Bachmeier

            Ghost Reveries is the supreme masterpiece imho

    • defjam

      Very nice comparison. Both albums you mention are the point where the seamless trajectories end and an oddball appears next.

  • The Unicorn

    I am very much enjoying this release. Is it the old Mastodon of yore? No. But it melds the old with the new nicely, and scratches that itch. Brent is as usual the wacky space cowboy soloist, and for that I am glad.

    • The Orb

      There’s definitely some nice soloing on this album. As much as Brent seems kinda like a trainwreck he’s keeping his chops together.

  • mindbleach

    It’s a 4.0 for me. It doesn’t abandon that hookiness from the last two allbums, but it somehow feels so much more alive from start to finish. The Hunter and OMRTS never held my attention for a full listen, I skipped tracks or zoned out every time. This album keeps all that hookiness but finally succeeds in making it engaging. It’s not on the level of albums 1-4, but it’s a massive step up from 5 and 6. Which weren’t exactly bad albums. But you could put this on right after listening to the first 4 and not bad an eyelid – there’s shades of that special something that was missing lately.

  • Hammersmith

    While I don’t think they will ever touch the greatness of the Leviathan – Blood Mountain – Crack the Skye triumvirate, this is probably the best thing they’ve done since Skye. Pretty catchy without sacrificing too much.

    • Totally agree.

    • Eli Valcik

      Yeah

    • Will

      I like Leviathan but could never really get into as much as others have.

      For me the previous album and Blood Mountain were there best ones.

  • Zach Ward

    From what I’ve heard I enjoy it, still have to give it a few more listens before I decide where it stands. One thing I’m sure of though, is that Show Yourself is the worst fucking song Mastodon has ever made. I hate that song with every fiber of my being and I refuse to ever listen to it again. Great Review Sanders + 10 to thee.

    • jersey devil

      That song is indeed terrible. The first song on this album is very good. The 2nd song is this bad “Show Yourself” song. The 3rd and 4th songs were ok…but I couldn’t get past the 4th song on this album. Its just too listless. I saw a reference to Alice in Chains in the review, and I heard a little I guess, but AIC are much better overall.

      • bb388

        Gotta give it more of a chance than 4 songs. The last half of the album is pretty good.

        • jersey devil

          you are right–i will do that

    • Will

      Eh, i think its pretty good.

  • I deleted “Show Yourself” and am now enjoying the album thoroughly. Great review, glad they’re back to kickin ass!

    • Bingo.

    • Ultimate sceptic

      I love Show Yourself.

  • Huck N’ Roll

    You nailed it in the review, L. This is a good album, not great. Show Yourself is a horrible song. Maybe Halestorm will cover it. The rest is pretty solid though. And I might be the only person in the world not a fan of Dailor’s drumming. There’s no need to end every bar with a drum fill. Let the others be heard! /end rant

  • naoto

    Agree with everything except the drumming… the guy is suffering from a persistent form of self-indulgence. He tends to fill the whole arrangement, expecially with snare work. Let put this way: “progressive drumming” is not just Mike portnoy, but mainly Danny Carey, imo.

    • Huck N’ Roll

      EXACTLY. Dude needs to listen to some Bill Bruford.

      • HairyToeKnuckles

        …and Gavin Harrison.

    • If there’s a hole, fill it!

      • dblbass

        Cant argue with that.

      • [not a Dr]

        Get a room!

    • Serjien

      “progressive drumming” is not just Mike portnoy, but mainly Danny Carey, imo.” – But it doesn’t have to be one or the other, it could be both imo.

    • The Orb

      Though in many ways I agree, I’ve come around to his drumming. No particular fill stands out and it becomes more like the ebb and flow of waves. It adds an organic, loose quality which sometimes gets lost when metal bands have that strict-to-the-grid drumming.

      Besides, there’s a precedent. Nothing wrong with Bill Buford and Gavin Harrison, but Keith Moon and Mitch Mitchell were pretty great too.

      • Well said. Too much metal has a tight, restrictive quality because the drummer punctuates every single guitar riff. Oftentimes, it strangles the music to a degree.

        One of the first things that attracted me to Mastodon was the drumming because (along with some gargantuan riffs) the tunes seem to have a certain flow to them, partially due to his unique style. However, after several albums his restraint is definitely in question. He tends to overplay, regardless of the musical situation. That’s something he could definitely learn from Bruford, Cobham, Kolstad, Harrison, etc.

    • Joe Rico

      Some drummers just hang back and provide support but it’s obvious he’s the focal point of the band. He sings…..plays over the top so it’s impossible TO NOT notice him. Nothing will ever match the Leviathon/Blood Mountain/Crack The Sky trio but as already said a Mastodon album is still better than many bands albums. I needed a nap today and listened to maybe 3 or 4 songs before nodding off so I can say the album has a soothing quality which is a good thing. I can get lost in good drumming being a drummer and being able to tune everything else out if needed. As it stands track one on The Hunter is amazing and Curl Of The Burl is a MUCH BETTER commercial song than Show Yourself. But I’m hearing much better stand out song sections on Emperor Of Sand than on The Hunter. This is definitely not a phoned in album and they can’t write a Blood Mountain or Crack The Skye EVERYTIME.

    • Well said. Too much metal has a tight, restrictive quality because the drummer punctuates every single guitar riff. Oftentimes, it strangles the music to a degree.

      One of the first things that attracted me to Mastodon was the drumming because (along with some gargantuan riffs) the tunes seem to have a certain flow to them, partially due to his unique style. However, after several albums his restraint is definitely in question. He tends to overplay, regardless of the musical situation. That’s something he could definitely learn from Bruford, Cobham, Kolstad, Harrison, etc.

      • Ultimate sceptic

        I thought that was a problem a decade ago on Blood Mountain, which at times became a ‘fills showcase’ stifling some of the fluidity of the grooves, but not really on any of their more recent work.

  • CongregationofFoxes

    Big bands like Mastodon are really easy to kick in the teeth and pick apart because all of their releases are expected to be perfect and ground breaking due to the music they put out that made them popular in the first place. This album is extremely solid though. Its really nice to have some more Mastodon in my life, definitely recommend it!

    • Jm from nj

      Agreed. The band, at this point, is in a no-win situation. Frankly, any Mastodon album is better than most albums.

      • It’s tricky, innit? Their previous two releases didn’t interest me in the slightest. Compared to other bands’ work, they were great albums, but compared to Crack the Skye or Leviathan, they were completely forgettable.

  • IndignantN00b

    Good for them with their crossover success but this has been a band in search of an identity for a bunch of albums now. Unfun fact: Blood Mountain was the last album I ever bought blind.

    I listened to the lead single and it sounds almost exactly like QOTSA. Hard to believe it was the same band that blew my 21-year old mind with tracks like “Mother Puncher” and “Workhorse.” They spawned an entire generation of bands with that sound- Baroness, Kylesa, etc. I don’t imagine there will be too many bands aping this sound over the next decade but I guess we’ll see…

  • EVILteddie

    I feel like the only person in the universe that enjoys “Show Yourself”. But I am also a QOTSA fanboy…

    • Sean Sky

      Nah it’s a catchy song. It really could have just been a cut from a QotSA album, though. Don’t know that it really belongs on a Mastodon album. Then again, I’m fine with bands switching up their formula and doing weird stuff people don’t expect.

    • Luke_22

      I love QOTSA as well, but I just can’t get behind this song.

    • Levly

      I’m with you man, sure it’s a catchy poppy song but it’s fun and groovy, I like it a lot and don’t really understand all the hate it gets here…

    • Jay Ochs

      I love how everyone thinks it sounds like a qotsa song.. it sounds just like a cky song. and i love cky.

      • Name’s Dalton

        You must love ASG then too.

    • Bad Meat

      I dig it, but I also sing along to it in my head as ‘Shit Yourself’ and pretend that Brian Posehn was the ghostwriter for the lyrics about how you can only piss in the tour bus bathroom. I have a feeling that Mastodon would be 95% down with that idea.

      • Josef Bachmeier

        hahahaha

    • Josef Bachmeier

      If QOTSA did that song, it’d sound more “right.” It just sounds weird with Mastodon stylings.

  • sir_c

    The embedded track does not really tickle me; not that the track is bad, not at all. But I’ve heard better Mastodon. It’s good that they’re back with some new solid stuff, but groundbreaking it is not.

  • ElectricEye

    For me, reliance on Dailor’s clean vocals has derailed the last three releases. I like the grit of Sanders and Hinds’ voices. Dailor’s voice cuts through the grit and ruins the tension and atmosphere of the songs. He has a good voice. It just does not work metal songs.

  • Diego Molero

    I don’t get what is so great about Mastodon. I like some songs here and there, but I don’t like any album front-to-back. Yes, they are a fun band, but that’s all (that is, of course, my opinion.)

    • While I agree about The Hunter and Once More (…) being just “fun records”, Crack the Skye is IMO in top 10 metal albums overall. Amazing journey, front-to-back actually:) . And the solo in The Czar is pure emotion. It makes weird things with my face every time I listen to it.
      Also, very few albums can match these neckbreaking grooves of Leviathan. Blood and Thunder, Naked Burn, jeeeesus:)

      • Antilight

        Life was pretty great back when Crack the Skye was brand new and they played the entire album front to back, all while playing some weird ass video about Rasputin on a screen behind them. Best show ever.

        • RuySan

          I must be the only person on earth that thinks each mastodon record is worse than the previous (remission and leviathan are among the best albums of all time for me). I just don’t get the reverence crack the Skye gets, and Once More… is boring beyond belief.

          Even so, I’ll always get curious to listen to their latest

      • Diego Molero

        I know I’m on the minority here, and I have tried to get into them but stil can’t, Is one of those bands I want to like but it just does’t click. The Czar is one of the songs I like though. I’m going to go and listen Crack the Skye to see if something has changed, hopefully it will.

        • Leviathan too is killer!

        • I haven’t ever been super into the band either. Blood Mountain is still my favourite disc from them. Crack the Skye never really caught on for me, sadly. Except for maybe 1 or 2 tracks. Oblivion was cool, I guess.

    • Giacomo_B

      Crack the Skye.

  • Jm from nj

    Give me Mastodon over Baroness any day.

    • Eric Andersen

      give me some Mastodon, Baroness and Sword (pre high country) everyday!

      • ARelativelyNewPerson

        Yes! Why choose one when you can have more

      • Name’s Dalton

        Give me ASG and Bask and early-Baroness every day.

        • By-tor

          +1 on ASG. Just wish they would get busy with a new album.

          • Name’s Dalton

            You and me both! In the meantime, listen to “Alseep in the Orchard,” the first song off the new Bask album. Would have fit nicely on Blood Drive.

    • I really hated the sound quality (or lack thereof) on the last Baroness album.

      • Jm from nj

        It was absolutely brutal production. I also just don’t think they measure up to Mastodon’s song writing and talent (though Baroness bassist is very good).

        • Heifer Madness

          Their guitarist is also awesome. Check out Valkyrie, it’s some ripping Thin Lizzy style riffs taken to an awesome extreme.

    • Heifer Madness

      Baroness looked to be the successors to the prog-sludge crown for a bit there. Red and Blue are awesome. I also like First, Second, and Grey Sigh in a Flower Husk. Yellow & Green was a huge disappointment though and Purple was good aside from the single and man, that production was just disgraceful.

  • Norwegian viking

    Off the record,give ex deo: the immortal wars and slugdge:the cosmic cornucopia aspin. Add lyrics and be blown away ??

  • Shane R

    I think they have exhausted their creativity at this point. I heard the single on the radio the other day and every riff brought to mind a song from the back catalog. But the song as a whole sounded tired and bored.

  • Tom Hardy

    Grossly over-rated, just as bad as Crash winning Best Picture. Over-rated. They have good album covers but the good in Mastodon stops right there. The band mate on the left looks like a hippie Kevin Costner of old.

  • Not a bad album.

  • TminusEight

    Guys I just wanna jump in and say how much I dig the way that with Mastodon, every guy in the band does some work on the mic. And I also want to say that I am listening to track 4 of Crack the Skye right now in honour of the band on the launch of their latest album and I still think it’s awesome and brilliant. But anyway, peace love war hate and Death Metal to you all. Long live Mastodon!

  • Matt Vogt

    After a succession of superb album covers from the beginning of their career, the last one was pretty questionable, and this one is way below their previous standard. Sadly, I lost interest in Mastodon’s music quite a way back, so it’s the album cover that is my main interest in this review…

    • Kronos

      Where the hell is the light coming from on the figure on the cover? Breastplate suggests upper left, helmet suggests above and forward, the face says upper right, etc. It looks terrible.

      • [not a Dr]

        It comes from the welder’s torch, on both sides of the page.

    • Josef Bachmeier

      I agree on the album artwork. Pretty corny.

  • Jeremy Freeman

    I’d say barely a 3…I found this album very average at best. A mix of the mediocre songs off of The Hunter and Once More Around The Sun.

  • Just a couple early reactions:

    1) I really like Show Yourself. I simply think it’s a very well written and well performed song. I’m not saying everyone who hates it need to widen their tastes, but I get a sort of “if it’s not heavy my brain can’t process it” vibe from some quarters.

    2) I’m not even much of a Mastodon fan, but listening to the new album reminds me of all sorts of moments on previous albums. I wouldn’t say they’re out of ideas, but there is a sense of (over?)familiarity to Emperor of Sand that I suspect will go away with repeat listens. That’s what happened with the most recent albums from Ihsahn, Helloween and Arch Enemy, so it’s probably ok, but also a sign that something new needs to happen within the next 2-3 albums.

    3) I’m not sure it sounds all that good, but I’m not sure it sounds bad either. I feel like almost every single metal album I listen to these days sounds kind of ‘meh’ in terms of mixing. Sort of harsh, cold and muddy. Thankfully, albums in other genres often sound great these days.

    4) I don’t like their first 2 albums and no matter what the band does, I’m always pleased that they don’t go back to that monochromatic, boring as hell style. Empreror of Sand at least has some colour to it, so I’m on board so far.

    • Josef Bachmeier

      Re: 3) I know what you mean. Go listen to the new Pallbearer. That shit sounds awesome!

      • Didn’t see this comment because I didn’t figure out that Disqus has a feed of replies. Silly me. So: Yes, I agree. I’m not a big fan of the band, but that Pallbearer sound is a nice exception to the norm in terms of sound quality.

  • wrathzombie

    Though , not exactly fair a fellow metal head on a different forum said – And it’s funny how these bands (Mastodon and Opeth) get “soft” or loose their edge. I look at it much like both bands were natural wild animals in touch with the essence of survival, the kill or be killed style to their sound. The fact that both bands could be related to on this sub-human primal animal level.

    Then both bands became like domesticated dogs, both lazy as food was provided and loosing all predatory impulse, becoming tame and careless.

  • Phil Daly

    I have somehow managed never to listen to Mastadon. Not quite sure how.

    • wrathzombie

      Please do, they are American National Treasure :)

  • A Feed From Cloud Mountain

    “Listeners expecting a return to the classic old days of Leviathan or Crack the Skye…”

    Yes?!

    “…won’t find much solace in what Emperor of Sand has to offer.”

    Oh, dear. I figured as much after hearing “Show Yourself,” but it still sucks to find it out. At least Sultan’s Curse is a great song that wouldn’t have been out of place on Crack The Skye.

  • Rick A.

    I liked the album way more than Once More, but they clearly will never write a song as fricking incredible as The Czar ever again.

  • Dead1

    I can’t help but think they’re an arrogant bunch of pricks everytime I see a photo of them. They just ooze “music wanker.”

  • herrschobel

    good review. Great Album. I really like Mastodon for being such an original likeable entity … 4 weird and very funny characters that happen to be excellent musicians with a very specific aesthetic … they are just a great Band…ups and downs are a part of life and this output reflects it, but overall i have massive respect for these guys. on every level.

  • Richard Bendall

    I’m really loving this album so far. I’d definitely place it ahead of The Hunter and Once More Round The Sun.

    It seems to have a good mix of all the best parts of Mastodon with genuine moments of inspiration on songs like Clandestiny, Roots Remain and Andromeda.

    I also think that Jaguar God is one of the best Mastodon songs of all time. Going from that beautiful Hindsy intro to those huge riffs. Plus, dat solo!

    • Jeff Kent

      And that Mike Keneally guy playing keyboards…

  • antitayyip

    blah

  • Juan Manuel Pinto Guerra

    That cover just fucking sucks.

  • Grawmps

    Not as good as Heartless by Pallbearer, but its growing on me. :)

  • Art Vandelay

    Musically it’s good but too much Brann Dailor singing.

  • The Elusive Dr. X

    Love the album, but I am growing to dislike the production. Very muddy and compressed. If the engineer had let it breathe a little more, it would have made for a much more enjoyable listen

  • On the first three full listens, as someone who is a big Mastodon fan (who liked Once More Round The Sun): maybe this will grow on me, but it sounds to me like this is a shadow of Mastodon. It’s almost like a band who really worshipped past Mastodon releases made this record. Almost a Ketzer’s Starless to Tribulation’s Children of the Night. Imagine if any other band made Show Yourself or the contrived opening riff of Steambreather? Hopefully this grows on me… kinda cold as of now. Also, yes, echoing sentiments that the cover art is MEH.

  • Chrisliua

    Does anyone who say this doesn’t capture the same magic as Crack The Skye actually listen to the album still? A good chunckmod EoS could have come right from CtS.