In many respects, Emperor of Sand feels like the culmination of Mastodon’s career.
In many respects, Emperor of Sand feels like the culmination of Mastodon’s career. The band’s seventh album recapitulates its history to this point, both the early, ambitious concept albums that swiftly spiraled into elaborate prog rock, as well as the more pared-down, arena-ready rockers of The Hunter and Once More ‘Round the Sun. As a concept album that spins its yarn from a more intimate core of the band addressing their experiences with loved ones battling cancer, the LP boldly harkens back to the LPs that built the band’s name, particularly the similarly ambitious, abstract self-therapy of Crack the Skye. But where those albums dove headlong into knotty time signatures and contrasting instrument parts, Emperor manages to explore its psychedelic terrain while remaining accessible.
Opener “Sultan’s Curse” deftly recalls the complex, interlocking riffs and lines of the likes of Blood Mountain. In particular, Troy Sanders’ bass has regained some of its independence after becoming a more traditional bottom end on recent releases. Here, the bass has a say of its own, sidewinding in and out of the riff the way it used to, as much of an exploring instrument as the guitars and drums. Most impressive, though, are the vocals; Sanders, Brent Hinds and Brann Dailor have never swapped between vocal lines so cleanly or effectively, and they immediately set the standard for arguably the album’s greatest asset. Not only do all three singers weave in and out of each other with clearly defined ranges and roles, they do so with a clarity that the band has always struggled to achieve. Dailor has quietly emerged as the group’s best singer, with a clear voice filled with plaintive emotion, though an invigorated Sanders actually gives him a run for his money in terms of sheer passion. Sanders always strained on his singing but he sounds in full voice here, as does Hinds, who has finally found a suitable replacement for his much-missed growls and screams in the form of an eerie baritone that cuts through the mix with bracing clarity.
That balance is the result of the band’s admirable stability, never a given attribute in the rapid turnover of metal. Emperor of Sand may not go out of its way to hit the proggy highs of the early days, but what the album does demonstrate is how intricate the group’s melodic compositions have become through longstanding familiarity and practice. “Steambreather” starts with a simple, lurching sludge riff that the band was already moving beyond on Remission, only to jump into a solo after the first verse that reorients the entire track around a driving thrash rhythm complete with thunderous fills from Dailor as Hinds and Bill Kelliher weave their guitar lines over the propulsive beats. “Roots Remain” constantly shatters and reforms, returning to its original riff but with slight tweaks that match its escalating vocal pleas. At last, Mastodon figured out how to stretch musical chops within more accessible structures, giving true shape to the approach attempted on the last two albums.
At times, though, the band tips the scales too far to one side. This is most evident with “Show Yourself,” the kind of catchy but too-vague number that dotted the preceding album. Coming off the busy, emotional “Sultan’s Curse,” its wan platitudes and generic riff makes no impact, muting what was otherwise a fun single into the album’s least essential, least relevant track. Lyrically, the album never takes its concept into the far-out terrains it used to explore with regularity, and often the metaphor completely breaks down in ways that don’t quite pull focus on the heart beneath its desert-roaming surface. “Precious Stones” barely even gets out of the gate before an entire verse is built around a simplistic sentiment “Don’t waste your time/ Don’t let it slip away from you,” and not even the sincerity behind such a lyric can save its cliché.
Thankfully, most of these blunders are confined to the first half, and after two front-loaded records, Mastodon finally crafts a record that closes stronger than it opens. “Ancient Kingdom” and “Clandestiny” are pummeling tracks that manage to be straightforward in the style of Remission over Once More ‘Round the Sun, the latter in particular sounding like what Metallica might have pulled off if they’d managed to craft chart-topping music while never deviating from their thrash roots. “Andromeda” and “Scorpion Breath” are the freshest tracks that Mastodon has written in years, ironically in part because they recall the total sonic fearlessness of Leviathan and Blood Mountain. Likewise, closer “Jaguar God” dizzyingly scales various peaks and valleys until it finally dumps into galloping thrash with Hinds sounding absolutely feral as he screams. It’s unlikely that Mastodon will ever again even try to cut an album as deliriously progressive and uncompromising as the first four, but Emperor of Sand successfully refines the impulses that drove those albums into focused, accessible tracks. This is not a band selling out to appeal to arenas, but rather one that has figured out how to reorient their core being around that new format.