Release Date: Mar 31, 2017
Record label: Reprise
Their first four albums were virtuosic prog epics that explored the subjects of death by fire, white whales, mountains and astral travel. Few bands would consider embracing simplicity as pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. Yet stripping down for 2011's The Hunter and 2014's Once More 'Round The Sun was the band's most surprising move yet, eschewing convoluted concepts for punchy, straight-to-the jugular song writing.
In a competitive and fast-paced metal scene that changes almost as often as the wind, Atlanta's Mastodon have so far had no trouble at all keeping pace and indeed often outstripping the competition with their sheer inventiveness and unique, progressive, oddball take on the genre. If you're not familiar with the band, they're like the MC Escher of modern metal, or perhaps the Salvador Dali, or HR Geiger. Their music is confusing.
Atlanta metallers Mastodon keep on defying critics album by album. Each release is such an immersive experience that you need dozens of plays to get to know each one, but if you make that effort, the rewards are tremendous. Yes, the basic recipe on album seven is metal; usually made up of laborious, crunchy grooves with one of Mastodon's three singers bellowing out lyrics about the Nazca lines or the hidden caverns of the psyche - but they often depart from this template to create astounding music.
After fully embracing their progressive rock roots with 2009's Crack the Skye, Mastodon looked to marry those influences with both their earlier stoned-to-the-bone riffs and simpler song structures on both The Hunter and Once More 'Round the Sun. Though neither record was a complete wash, the band's sonic strategizing worked better in some instances than others. Enter Emperor of Sand, which stands as the best full-length example of this marriage to date. Producer Brendan O'Brien, who helmed things on Crack the Skye, is back behind the boards to give musical direction to Emperor's themes of time, life and death.
Metal needed this album. It needed a record that's doomy, heavy and magnificently multilayered, and Mastodon's seventh album is exactly that. "'Emperor Of Sand' is like the Grim Reaper," says drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor about the album's cancer concept, which reflects the band's recent familial losses. "Sand represents time.
Mastodon are back in full force with a classic metal edge and subtle hints at their past. Mastodon are one of the most reliable, consistent bands still pushing the boundaries of what prog rock and heavy metal can be. Like many groups who enjoy continual mainstream success, they flirted with these developments while never compromising their sound or slowing down experimentations. Their latest, Emperor of Sand, has it all: catchy choruses, shredding guitar riffs and solos, and a weighty concept to allow for surprisingly emotional moments to shine through.
RIFFS So many of Mastodon's creative triumphs have been born out of personal tragedy and struggle. From living hand-to-mouth in the months before 'Leviathan' made them metal's hottest properties to guitarist Bill Kelliher's battle with addiction around 2011's 'The Hunter', and the childhood grief that coloured 'Crack The Skye', they're masters at weaving darkness into gold. So it proves again on this, the Atlanta, Georgia titans' haunting and monumentally complex seventh album. A labyrinth of eerie, psychedelic melodies, unexpected left turns and – of course – riffs the size of their home state, 'Emperor Of Sand' is shot through with visions of mortality; reportedly inspired by family members going through cancer.
At least in certain respects, Mastodon ' s Emperor of Sand might well be metal's answer to Rush's mainstream-conquering 1981 classic Moving Pictures . For its seventh studio outing, the Atlanta quartet reins-in its prodigious technical abilities without watering them down. A s Metallica ' s black album famously showed, this is no easy feat. Mastodon haven't had an easy go of it either, but fans who thought 2014's Once More 'Round the Sun veered uncomfortably close to radio-friendly should give Emperor of Sand a chance.
Mastodon built their cult following by boiling dense high fantasy and sci-fi lyrical concepts in a caustic sonic cauldron of sludge, stoner metal and hard rock. They've since managed to climb higher and higher on the Billboard 200 (2014's Once More 'Round the Sun peaked at number six) by slightly softening their sound and forgoing zonked stories of dimension-hopping czars and future-sighted sasquatches. The newly released Emperor of Sand successfully fuses the high concept, high volume grind of the Atlanta metal band's older material with the more melodic immediacy of their last two records.
Perma-frowned doomsayers Mastodon are back with yet another friendly reminder that someday everyone will die. This time, it comes in the guise of seventh album Emperor of Sand, a lofty concept piece about a man wandering a desert with a curse over his head set to swirling, frenetic guitars and gut-rumbling drums. "Don't waste your time/If it's the last thing that you do," goes the chorus to Emperor's boogie-metal "Precious Stones," and the band largely took that advice to heart.
Mastodon set the bar high with Emperor of Sand. It was written in difficult circumstances emotionally and creatively. Like their first three albums (and unlike their last two), this is a concept album. Its dominant theme is of time running out, and its 11 tracks offer an allegorical story of a man handed a death sentence by a desert sultan.
Several years ago, Georgian quartet Mastodon was considered the reigning force in modern American metal, and for a good reason. 2002's Remission and 2004's Leviathan saw them infuse plenty of dynamic intricacy into a sludge/stoner foundation, while 2006's Blood Mountain was a tour-de-force of eccentric experimentation that hinted at the lively progressive masterpiece that would be 2009's Crack the Skye. For a while there, it seemed like Mastodon would continue to lead the charge by pushing boundaries and significantly reinventing itself with every release.
M astodon fans seem to come in two forms: disgruntled diehards who prefer "the early stuff" and an increasingly huge mainstream rock contingent who will doubtless be delighted by the straightforwardly melodic fare that makes up much of the band's seventh album. The first four tracks all follow a familiar template, with drummer Brann Dailor driving everything along at a breathless clip and big, alt-rock refrains that, as memorable as they are, exhibit little of Mastodon's much-celebrated progressive instinct. But then things pick up: Roots Remain is spellbinding, its twists and turns recalling the fizzing creativity that drove 2009's Crack the Skye.
Having formed in 2000, Mastodon are literally a group whose history spans the entire 21st century, but their fearlessly nonpostmodern vision of rock as a vehicle for grandiose conceptual musings on the very basic issues of life is more reminiscent of the 1970s. Explaining the thematic underpinning of Emperor Of Sand, drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor says, "Sand represents time. If you or anyone you know has ever received a terminal diagnosis, the first thought is about time.
Few metal bands have been able to successfully permeate the mainstream, especially in recent years. After a string of successful concept albums, Mastodon swung for the fences of modern rock radio and slightly missed the mark. On Emperor of Sand, their seventh full length, they've found the perfect balance. Returning to the concept format gives Emperor of Sand more structure than either The Hunter or Once More 'Round the Sun.