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.
Unfortunately, that potential has kind of died off, as the band’s subsequent two releases — 2011’s The Hunter and 2014’s Once More ‘Round the Sun — failed to be as impactful, not only because they weren’t concept albums (as the previous three were) but because they felt more like conventional amalgams of their predecessors than equally striving steps forward. They were still great albums in their own right, but they lacked both the narrative ambition and musical adventurousness that many devotees expected. Regrettably, the group’s seventh studio outing, Emperor of Sand, maintains that trend, as its heightened focus on storytelling, though engaging, is undermined by a severe lack of variety. In fact, it feels like Mastodon has now become almost fully complacent in repeating itself, so if you’ve heard the aforementioned records already, you’ve essentially heard this one too, and that’s a shame.
Interestingly, Emperor of Sand is connected to Crack the Skye in a couple ways: it marks the return of producer Brendan O’Brien and, according to the official press release, it contains a similarly “imaginative and complex conceptual storyline” whose exploration of mortality is, as bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders puts it, “17 years in the making… it ties into our entire discography”. Drummer Brann Dailor describes it in more detail:
[It] ponders the nature of time [by] threading together the myth of… a Sultan in the desert [who] hands down a death sentence to this guy. He’s running from that. He gets lost, and the sun is zapping all of his energy akin to radiation. So, he’s trying to telepathically communicate with these African and Native American tribes to get rain to pour down and kill it.
Sanders also notes that the full-length is “a direct reaction to the last two years” in their lives. Specifically, it’s somewhat inspired by guitarist Bill Kelliher’s mother, who passed away from brain cancer last September, and it grew out of lengthy jams that were meant to help him deal with the loss. It makes sense, then, when Dailor adds that Emperor of Sand is “like the grim reaper… sand represents time. If you or anyone you know has ever received a terminal diagnosis, the first thought is about time. Invariably, you ask, ‘How much time is left?’” Although the album embodies such powerful and personal subject matter well musically, lyrically, and vocally at times, it’s surprising lack of diversity, freshness, and memorability brands it fairly stagnant, forgettable, and disappointing.
“Sultan’s Curse” — which finds the protagonist “believ[ing] he’s being bathed by the Sultan’s daughters, but he’s being carried to his assassination by the Sultan’s men” — kicks things off ominously, with oscillating chimes setting off a trademark onslaught of rhythmically sophisticated guitar riffs and percussion. Combined with Sanders’ initial outburst of vocal aggression, it’s a commanding introduction, yet it unavoidably evokes previous pieces like “High Road”. Likewise, once Dailor and lead guitarist Brent Hinds add their sections to the mix (and segue between them with fiery instrumentation), the back-and-forth wizardry of Crack the Skye’s “Oblivion” comes to mind. As you can see, the major flaw with Emperor of Sand is apparent from the start: it’s an exciting ride that exemplifies why Mastodon is so idiosyncratic, but at the same time, it’s little more than a rehash of what devotees have already experienced.
Afterward, “Show Yourself” is a catchy and highly accessible rocker that was justly chosen as the record’s first single. Its mid-section chaos strikes a strong balance between technical frenzy and commercial appeal, and its main guitar solo is excellent, plain and simple. Also, it’s as fine an example as any of how seamlessly Mastodon can shift between relentless brutality and radio-friendly approachability. “Precious Stones” is comparably welcoming, albeit with more bite and a spotlight performance from Hinds. It also contains one of the most hypnotic and effective riffs in the band’s whole discography (trust me: you’ll know it when you hear it), making it a quintessential entry on the record.
Surely the greatest aspect of “Steambreather” is its grandiose chorus, whose inherent intrigue is enhanced by having Hinds, Sanders, and Dailor layer their chants. The hook in “Roots Remain” is equally operatic, yet what actually stands out here is its dynamic shifts; the track transitions between speedy madness, spacey melancholia, and everything in-between brilliantly. While it does remind one of Crack the Skye’s “The Last Baron” in terms of splicing several robust and daring movements (complete with piano, bells, and other atypical timbres), it also packs enough alluring originality to flourish as its own progressive metal gem. (Its opening also sets itself apart by alluding to the haunting robotic moments of recent Between the Buried and Me LPs.)
Both “Words to the Wise” and “Ancient Kingdom” are serviceable but by-the-numbers offerings that, like much of the disc, are simultaneously enjoyable and familiar (in particular, the former feels eerily similar to Blood Mountain’s “Hunters of the Sky” at times). Fortunately, “Clandestiny” adds vivacity with some emotional keyboard complements and futuristic effects halfway through, yielding some of the most colorful and distinguishing parts of the sequence. Next, “Andromeda” features a guest scream from Brutal Truth’s Kevin Sharp; aside from that, it’s sort of a call back to the in-your-face hostility of Leviathan.
The penultimate “Scorpion Breath” welcomes Neurosis’ Scott Kelly to the fold and carries the violent torch somewhat monotonously, as it barely wavers from its early concoction. It does, however, provide an excellent juxtaposition to closer “Jaguar God”, a gentle ballad that starts with folky acoustic guitar arpeggios and calming verses (courtesy of Hinds). From there, it explodes into the kind of multifaceted and virtuosic tension Mastodon does so well—and so often—until it concludes by reprising the opening beneath a heartfelt and vigorous guitar solo that leaves you in state of awe. Like “Roots Remain”, it’s a triumph of diverging styles and clever links that marginally makes up for its repeat nature by, well, being so damn good.
Emperor of Sand is by no means a bad album. As an individual work, it’s filled with incredible musicianship, engrossing melodies, and a wide array of textures that interweave effortlessly and keep things vibrant. However, it’s not the first record of a brand-new group; it’s the seventh statement by a band who’s already charted 95 percent of this territory, so even its standout arrangements—and there are many of them—can’t help but conjure previous ones. In addition, the album features the least amount of variety since Leviathan (so don’t be surprised if the majority of it runs together in your mind). With Emperor of Sand, Mastodon remains one of the most distinctive bands of its ilk, but like a beach that’s been combed over many times before, there’s precious little left to discover this time around.