Review Summary: 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. Guitarist Bill Kelliher described Emperor of Sand
as “a continuation of the last record,” which might be downplaying this beast for a number of reasons. Not only being a return to concept albums of old, … Sand
sports their strongest riffs and beefiest sounding compositions since Crack the Skye
Some fans have prematurely dubbed this as a return to those psychedelic, mind-bending metal jams of … Skye
, but it does logically follow in the footsteps of more recent Mastodon records. This is most likely what Kelliher meant by his statement, as he also described … Sand
as “deeper.” The most adventurous tracks on here do reach the lofty heights of previous epics, but this is primarily a blazing metal record of shredding riffs and classic metal tinged guitar leads. Many tracks have infectious choruses while also venturing into instrumental explorations. This is what modern Mastodon do best, and it’s difficult to imagine it sounding any better than on here. The music never stalls or feels tired, showing that Mastodon really are one of the most versatile metal bands currently making music.
They sound tighter and more consistent on Emperor of Sand
than before, with not a subpar song to be found and a heady concept to allow for the songs to develop in unexpected, epic heights. This is the first concept album from Mastodon in nearly a decade, hinting at a return to the grandiose storytelling of older releases. It comes from a place of honoring the band member’s loved ones, while also grappling with one’s own mortality. Like all Mastodon records however, this has a sense of fun and controlled chaos throughout.
"Sultan’s Curse” energetically sets the stage for the protagonist’s mystical journey through sands of time, being among their most impactful album openers. The lyrics tell of the weary traveller, but the music has Mastodon sounding fresher than they have in years. This holds true for all of …Sand
, with quicker cuts like “Precious Stones” and “Scorpion Breath” each packing a huge punch with dazzling guitar work while being among their shortest songs to date. Some tracks could go on even longer than they do, but it’s difficult to see this as a flaw when each one has so much going on.
Mastodon have always been massive sounding, and Emperor of Sand
contains some of their most ambitious compositions yet. “Andromeda” sports a crushing main riff, but the song develops further beyond straightforward heaviness with spacier moments emerging as it goes. There are all kinds of subtle instrumental touches throughout … Sand
overall, with the restrained use of piano in both album epics “Roots Remain” and “Jaguar God” adding to their emotional weight. The “Making of” videos for the album prove that the instrumentalists tried to create enough flourishes to add more dimensions to their ever-evolving sound.
The heavy guitar riffing, soloing, and incredible drumming remain at the forefront however, with Mastodon always knowing how to get the balance right. Guitar solos in particular are aplenty here, with the dual guitar harmonizing in “Precious Stones” recalling the likes of Iron Maiden and Death, while still sounding distinctly like Mastodon. There are so many strengths to Emperor of Sand
that there is no point in remaining stuck with the mindset of what Mastodon used to be. They have embraced mainstream success in the best way that would be possible, by sticking to a high concept and shredding their way through an emotional backdrop while displaying their instrumental virtuosity amazingly.