Review Summary: Life’s most demanding problems create the best Mastodon record in years.
They say that as you age, your anger wanes with it; maybe this is accounted to life’s constant beat-downs where it gets to the point -- not that you aren’t as pissed off now as you were 20 years ago, but more that you give less of a damn about the little things in your later days. In the context of Mastodon, it’s pretty obvious they’ve tapped into their visceral, angst fuelled emotions less and less with recent releases, focusing a bedrock on song-writing. The Hunter
was the first album to shift away from the painstakingly detailed conceptual themes -- the likes of which Leviathan
pertained -- opting for a “loose theme” and a much more stress-free approach to their writing, which relied more on melody and song structure. For me, this was one of the band’s defining moments; an album that delivered a fresh and exciting take on their signature sound, whilst offering a wider accessibility to their music -- without sacrificing what makes them who they are. The band’s last album, Once More Round The Sun
, was a different story though: a decent album for what it’s worth, but I felt the music on the album didn’t so much push the band forward, as it did move them a step back; the LP’s production didn’t fit the music very well, while compositions felt a little slapdash and some of the melodic choices didn’t quite fit the band. Still, it was a decent effort, but one that left the future of the band’s music up in the air; it was going to be interesting to see where they would go next time round.
As the band have said recently, this album was extremely emotional to make: Troy’s wife was undergoing cancer treatment during the production of the record, whilst the other members held weighing skeletons in their own closets. Now whether this had a predominant affect on the record, I can only surmise, but this album holds a gargantuan amounts of melancholy and sorrow that creates a very strong quality throughout. If there’s one thing you can take away from Emperor of Sand
it’s that it’s far superior to the last record and it trumps The Hunter
, albeit not in terms of quality, but on a sound which better suits Mastodon. The album’s first track, “Sultan’s Curse”, brings a distinct homage and respect to Crack the Skye
, this is largely down to Brent’s shrieking vocal performance, and the excellent finger-picking guitar work that supports it. The end result is a great opener that blends the sludgy aesthetic of older works, with a lot of the excellent contemporary qualities the band have been toying with in recent records.
And that’s the best way to sum up what Emperor of Sand
is; it’s an album that doesn’t necessarily move the band forward sonically, rather one that correlates with old and new sounds in a way which is as equally gratifying as if the band were to push the boundaries. There are plenty of hallmarks that made The Hunter
and Once More Round The Sun
so appealing to fans here, but it’s a much more proggy experience than the last two records -- a la Crack the Skye
. But this isn’t done in a carbon copy sort of way, this LP has its own character and mood to distinguish it from its peer; the solos in particular, on the likes of “Precious Stones” and “Steambreather”, are exceptionally well crafted, that not only bring an interesting finesse to them, but bring boatloads of atmosphere to the songs. This particular aspect is something Emperor of Sand
Other well executed pros to this album are found in the vocal work. As we’ve seen in recent records, the band have gradually found a brilliant dynamic with its singers, letting a certain voice take on the mood of a certain track, but it’s here where it all feels fully realised. Melodies truly shine on here, and they’ve mastered the pay-off when it comes to the verse/chorus explosion. The choruses on almost every song here soar with an epic catharsis, and is something I haven’t fully felt from the band since the Crack the Skye
era. Brann in particular is absolutely superb throughout -- not that anyone is slacking in the vocal department, but his vocal takes appear to have the most impact and resolve. This mainly occurs when Troy and Brann duet: the best track on here, “Roots Remain”, contains some truly stellar music, met with a dirty Leviathan
-esque groove and mood setting spacey-guitar passages from one of their older prog hits, complete with some absolutely face-melting guitar solos that put the cherry on the cake. But the biggest highlight comes from the vocal dynamic that has Sanders bellowing out the verses, with his gritty vocals, before shifting into the fantastic cleans of Brann in its epic chorus. The guys just support each other so well in this department, and when it comes to building up a chorus for someone, the other vocalist makes it his mission to line it up perfectly beforehand.
So, the negatives to Emperor of Sand
. Ironically, the only problems I have with this album stem from two of the album’s singles: “Show Yourself” and “Andromeda”; “Andromeda” fairs far better than “Show Yourself”, with the grimey, crunchy chorus being a definite highlight, but the track as a whole feels a little stale and regressive, not offering enough good ideas to reach the same calibre the rest of the LP functions at. “Show Yourself”, however, is easily the weakest link here: repetitive, shallow and densely insulting when compared to the complexly dominant ideas present 99% of the time. Not that a song has to be complex to be enjoyed -- far from it -- there are plenty of accessible Mastodon moments here; the difference between those moments and this song, is that “Show Yourself” delivers a lot of what irritated me about Once More Round The Sun
, with an even more dumbed down factor to it. The song also stands out like a sore thumb, both tonally and intellectually, it offers nothing other than risking this album’s near flawless cohesion.
However, these two tracks do little in affecting the quality here. When I heard the singles for this record, I wasn’t expecting to hear anything earth-shattering. Upon hearing the LP in its entirety it not only surprised me, but left me thinking it’s going to be one of 2017’s biggest highlights -- easy. If you’re a fan of the band this will, hands down, deliver the goods, no matter which era of the band you prefer. While there is the odd moment of being a little too familiar at times, they still manage to connect their last two albums with their older works in a near effortless way that feels both new and exciting, and you’d be a fool to miss it.
SPECIAL EDITION: N/A