Atlanta Prog Metal legends Mastodon return in 2017 with their seventh proper full-length studio album, Emperor Of Sand. Speaking of returns; frequent collaborator Scott Kelly returns for yet another guest vocal performance and producer Brendan O’Brian returns as well, having last done their fourth album, the 2009 masterpiece, Crack The Skye. Also returning is the concept-album format. Leviathan, Blood Mountain and Crack The Skye had all been story-driven concept albums that also served as a metaphor for the band’s lives and Emperor Of Sand continues that tradition after a break into more traditional territories with The Hunter and Once More Round The Sun.
The concept on this record is of a man being handed down a curse/death sentence and wandering the sands of the desert to his ultimate death and or salvation. The band haven’t been shy in interviews of describing the fact that story serves as a metaphor for cancer and especially guitarist Bill Kelliher’s mother’s death from brain cancer. There’s even a dedication to her cleverly hidden in the artwork on one of the creature’s shields.
When you get told that information before hand, you immediately analyze the lyrics for clues. Is this about a biopsy? Is this about a scan? Does this represent the prognosis? Is this about the stages of grief? Does this represent the loss of cognitive function associated with illnesses of the brain? Is this line about a donation? Is this one about a family dispute? Does this character represent the doctor? Does this one represent cancer itself? …We do know for sure from the documentary that sand represents time. Sometimes it isn’t even so hidden at all; the album ends with the line ‘Its right in front of me, your malignancy.’ It all gives the album such a layer of depth, not unlike Crack The Skye had with Brann’s family tragedy. It feels a bit distasteful going into it so much, but then again if they didn’t want us to it wouldn’t have been released and promoted in such a way as to make it so possible.
Background aside, the main thing that sticks out about this album is the lead guitar. Now, Mastadon have always been musical virtuosos, innovators and masters of distilling broad and extreme influences into a cohesive singular whole, but still, even when we get used to excellence from the musicians, the guitars here are especially strong. There are some really stand up and take notice leads, some very crack a smile solos and some screw up your face and nod riffs on here.
It really is a guitar-centric record. Even with the story, Brann’s superhero drumming, all the bonus keyboards and studio touches, and the team approach to vocals… man those guitarists sure are on damn fine form here.
In terms of direction; this one seems to be an attempt to merge the Crack The Skye formula into the most mainstream moments of the most recent two albums. The first half of the album is all more sing-along, catchy, easily accessible stuff, and the second half drops down the prog. Tracks like ‘Show Yourself’ and ‘Precious Stones’ have radio appeal, then tracks like the magnificent album closer ‘Jaguar God’ are a trippy journey through a dozen speeds, tones and moods with bonkers Robert Fripp-esque guitar noodling meeting metal meeting acoustic meeting big beautiful wailing solos. The middle of ‘Clandestiny’ sounds like it could be on a Yes or Genesis record, something they’ve always talked about but I’ve never heard so litterally before.
With Emperor Of Sand it feels like they’ve taken all the lessons they’ve learned with big vocal melodys, hit appeal and targeting a wider audience, and applied it to the slow-burn, grower, hear something new on every listen nature of Crack The Skye. It doesn’t sound anything like that record, but the second half has the same spirit, ethos or vibe as it did. Its all about the repeat listens, the new discoveries, the changing attitudes. I mean, it doesn’t sound like my favourite album, Leviathan, and that is always an adjustment, but when you get over it, like you do every new release you realize that the band can still be amazing even when they are doing a different style.
On first listen, I wasn’t keen on this album, the next time I wasn’t sure, I felt a bit negatively about this but I was sure one more listen would prove whether there was something good going on here and then from there it built and built for me until I was a bit positive to satisfied and now I’m very impressed. Its got big ideas, its got big ambitions, and its undeniably Mastodon. Some of these songs feel one way, then they hit the halfway mark and morph into something else. There’s all these neat subtle touches in the background (listen in depth to ‘Steam Breather’). There’s such badass little drum parts (hey there, Ancient Kingdom’s midsection!). There’s such sticky vocal parts. From all the singers. They’re working together even better than before, blending better. Its a team approach to vocals and it works really well. Then you get all the different takes on the album. Sit there with the lyric book in an empty room and the album feels one way, listen to it on a sunny walk and its very different again. Listen concentrating on one instrument and it feels like a different record than concentrating on another, or the vocals.
For me; my favourite tracks would have to be ‘Roots Remain,’ especially towards its end which has a Cysquatch feel to it, as well as aforementioned album highlight ‘Jaguar God’ and the most Remission-like track ‘Andromeda’ with its jagged caustic riffs and awesome guest vocals from Brutal Truth’s Kevin Sharp… but hey, if the weather improves I can see it being the singles ‘Show Yourself’ and ‘Sultans Curse.’ Pretty great for an album I initially had a negative impression of, ey?
A grower. An exceeder of expectations. A Mastodon album.