Silence Growing Loud, Failure is Not Allowed…
Yo, this be Reuben. Mastodon are back!! Well, they never really went, but, they’ve got a freakin’ new album!! And, sorry to spoil it for you, but it’s awesome.
Need Mastodon have any introduction? They’re the coolest dudes in the music industry, taking Rage Against the Machine’s spot after they broke up and sporting the coolest beards and all that jazz since the turn of the millennium, slinging complicated riffs and unforgettable hooks all over the shop in their unique and beastly mix of metal and prog (and all sorts of sub-genres of metal). They erupted onto the scene with their breakthrough album Leviathan back in 2004, and since they’ve been refining and defining their sound, and what it means to be a Mastodon song. A Mastodon song is more than just a riff, or a catchy chorus. It takes a simple song structure including these things, and absolutely beefs it up with its sheer complexity and practically unmatched musicality, as unfathomable drum beats from ol’ Brann are thrown at you, along with a barrage of guitar shredding and three different singers. A good Mastodon song, at least, should be an absolute trip. And Emperor of Sand is full of ’em.
Right from the get-go, Emperor of Sand is incredible. Its first track, Sultan’s Curse, may well be the peak of the album, but even so the album keeps on throwing awesomeness at you through it’s 50 minute run time. As for Sultan’s Curse, here’s what I said in my impressions article, and I agree with it still:
“This incredible track feels like a morph of all that is amazing about Mastodon. Some of that brutal heaviness of Leviathan and Remission, the clear mix and riffage of The Hunter, the psychedelic aspect of Once More ‘Round the Sun, the awesome musicianship and energy of Blood Mountain and the prog and heart-felt meaningfulness of Crack the Skye. Sultan’s Curse is truly a song to behold.
Jeering and driving along with its supreme riffage, Troy Sanders, Brent Hinds and Brann Dailor put out awesome vocal sections. Sanders is possibly more energised than he has been, Hinds is clearer than before and Dailor sounds like a new singer, with a mature and accomplished output while he smashes the drums like a God (Bill Kelliher! There, I mentioned his name.). Mastodon have never sounded so loud, accomplished or driven.”
I mean, I wouldn’t say they’ve ‘never sounded so loud, accomplished or driven’ anymore, but still, it’s an absolutely amazing listen. The fact that the rest of the album brings that same sort of quality again and again across its entire run time is a testament to the songwriting ability of the band, and shows to me that it’s gonna be preeettty hard to beat this album to the top spot of album of the year (the mightiest of all prizes on Stuff and That, after all…). The awesomeness on Emperor of Sand just does not stop.
I apologise for sounding like an excitable 10-year-old in this review, but I can’t quite believe my ears every time I listen to this record, because of how mind-bogglingly good it is. It feels like an accumulation of a lot of what Mastodon has done over the years, as I mentioned in my summary of Sultan’s Curse, but it also adds so much, to make it a unique and exciting new release, but something friendly to all fans of the band.
Most prominently, it is the first clear concept album since 2006’s Blood Mountain, and I’m gonna do EXACTLY THE SAME THING AS EVERY OTHER REVIEWER (because I feel lazy, also this is from Wikipedia, just so ya know):
“The concept and story in Emperor of Sand follows a desert wanderer who has been handed a death sentence. Themes of death and survival are woven into the song’s lyrics, which were inspired by experiences members of the band had when family and friends were recently diagnosed with cancer.
“At the end of the story, the person simultaneously dies and is saved,” (drummer Brann) Dailor said. “It’s about going through cancer, going through chemotherapy and all the things associated with that. I didn’t want to be literal about it. But it’s all in there. You can read between the lines.”
“We’re reflecting on mortality,” bassist and vocalist Troy Sanders said in a statement. “To that end, the album ties into our entire discography. It’s 17 years in the making, but it’s also a direct reaction to the last two years. We tend to draw inspiration from very real things in our lives.”
Honestly, when you read into it, the concept is an interesting one that gives Emperor of Sand a level of emotion not dissimilar to Crack the Skye, and similarly, it uses it as a powerful tool to give the album a strong extra layer — particularly, this time, in the lyrics, which are the strongest and most thought provoking I’ve heard form the band since their conception. Tracks like Roots Remain and Jaguar God really utilize this aspect, and contain some awesome, goose-bump wielding moments as a result.
Musically, too, there is a lot of interesting shizzle going on in the record. For one, Brent Hinds is absolutely on another level, bringing his jeering and depressingly skillful guitarwork to the forefront of the record, providing, essentially, a constant wig-out throughout the album, with guitar solos like the one in Word to the Wise or in Clandestiny. Also, his use of effects in places is awesome, in particular the monstrous fuzz in Steambreather.
Backing Brent up, as always, are the ever-solid bass licks from Troy Sanders, who although not quite with the same impact on this record as in Once More ‘Round the Sun, is particularly impressive in Andromeda and Roots Remain and is has established himself as one of the better bassists around — along with being the coolest dude in the industry.
On percussion, we have the man, the legend, the metal God, Brann Dailor. Although his beats aren’t quite so in-your-face as in the early days of the band, they are arguably tighter than ever, and, well, with my untrained drum-hearing ears, they still sound like some of the best drums in music right now. You can just hear the passion he pours into the drums in every moment of the album, and in Scorpion Breath particularly, the power and precision he plays with is incredible.
And, lest we forget, Bill Kelliher is also there, slinging awesome riffs left right and centre like it’s his job. Oh wait, it is. But yeah, as rhythm guitarists go, he’s probably the best around, and, in fairness, that ain’t no mean feat. Throughout the whole of Emperor of Sand, his riffs fill the sound wall, and beasts like in Andromeda prove that yes, there is no shortage of riffs. Thanks, Bill. You are a dude.
I think that, perhaps, the musicianship, albeit constantly unfathomably immense from the band, is at its best in this record since Blood Mountain, although it doesn’t quite match the sheer power of that one still. The musicality on show throughout the whole record, from start to finish, is just unreal, and underlines that this band is unbeatable in this way. It mixes the awesome riffs with light melodies, to make for something potently heavy, fulfilling and catchy all at the same time, with each song winding along with interesting structures, but nailed down by memorable choruses and particularly strong vocal outputs from Dailor, Sanders and Hinds. There is a brilliant energy possessed in the album, with a tone that is sometimes upbeat, sometimes melancholy, but always reflective, as it acts as an expertly crafted musical response to the band members’ tough last two years.
The only thing I can pick fault at in this record is Show Yourself, which is the weakest song on it. I couldn’t call it a dud track, because I never actually skip it. It’s a much less ambitious effort by the band, and for that I can’t say I love it anywhere as much as the rest of the album, but I still like the song, although it represents the lowest point on the album. Even so, I think the fact that this ‘lowest point’ is still a pretty quality, energetic and catchy song is a testament to how good Emperor of Sand is.
Show Yourself is the most prominent example of the album’s step into the cusp of the mainstream, as with its more accessible melodies that were hinted at in moments of The Hunter and ‘Round the Sun, but it can be heard throughout the mid-section of the album, with the positive hooks in Ancient Kingdom, Clandestiny and Steambreather, most clearly. Now, I want to clarify something. Positive is not bad. In this instance, even, it’s awesome, and just makes it all a more enjoyable listen, something to sing along to, and get your brain melted by the skill on show. Indeed, those three songs I mentioned stand as some of the best the band has ever written as a result.
On the other hand, Emperor of Sand can still be HEAVY. Mastodon are still metal. This album is their heaviest since Blood Mountain, thank you very much. Screaming vocals are brought back, man. Scorpion Breath is full of ’em, Jaguar God throws ’em around and Andromeda gives you a nice little taste.
I actually got this record the day after it came out, but it’s taken me this long to review it because of 1. Laziness, and 2. Trying to work it out and letting it sit with me — I’ve had to listen to this one at least ten times now, and I think it’s enough to do it justice. I apologise to everyone in my household who’s had to go through all these listens, but there is so much to Emperor of Sand, to work out, and to love.
The incredible musicality of Mastodon has absolutely come to life once again with this release, providing a mix of more accessible and immensely enjoyable tracks, hard-hitting tracks and prog behemoths with its emotional lyrics, accomplished vocal performances and awe-inspiring musicianship. It’s gonna be hard to beat this one for album of the year. Show me all you’ve got, At the Drive In!
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