Album Review: Mastodon – Emperor of Sand

By Erik Brasher

The idea of “time” is established in every culture. We all see its effects but it still seems somehow elusive and mysterious. It seems to be a mathematical constant, but sometimes it appears to move fast or slow. It is truly valuable because we all wish we had more to spend, and we don’t like to waste it. This continual passage of time is personified as the ‘Emperor of Sand’ in the newest album from Mastodon.

This seventh full length release features some of the most straightforward songs that the band has ever written. Gone are the over-indulgences of tempo changes and nonstop arpeggiated riffage. This new batch of songs is a well crafted mix of classic rock groove blended with heavy metal grit and just a pinch of psychedelia. While all music deserves to be listened to as loud as possible, listening quietly to this album you will miss the subtle textures and melodies moving beneath the surface. The album sounds crisp and maybe even a bit overproduced by hitmaker Brendan O’Brien with all the tambourines in particular being a little overused in my opinion.

In many of their recent interviews, members of the band have talked about how cancer and the death of family has been in the background during the writing of this album, and it has clearly affected the outcome. It is an introspective album with dark vocal melodies and lyrics that start off melancholic and progress into feeling lost and confused, which then becomes dark and angry, ending with a confrontation. The band is known for constructing their albums around a central story and in the past these were bizarre tales of fantasy and conquest while this album seems focused on sadness, loss, and doubt. This is not the same group of spastic youngsters that this band began as. This is a roadworn crew who have survived all the successes and perils of the professional musician lifestyle over the last 17 years since starting this band. These adult men have become visibly older and greyer, and they now have families to take care of and bills to pay.

Not surprisingly, the band wants to sell albums to the largest audience possible. So that means a three minute single with a fun music video will be needed to push the album, and ‘Show Yourself’ is clearly engineered to be that mainstream hit. Its one of those catchy songs about death that seems to be all the rage with the youngsters these days. There is plenty of grumbling about how nobody buys albums anymore, but if a band wants to be commercially viable it is seen as a betrayal. It is a sad form of the crabs in a bucket mentality, if you aren’t suffering in the gutter with us poor and bitter metalheads then you are a traitor. I prefer that my favorite bands sell enough albums that they can continue to create new music. I want them to buy better amps and produce better albums. I want them to be able to afford a nice bus so they don’t die on tour in a shitty little van.

Some people hold sacred their image of what metal is supposed to be. Mastodon is obviously not interested in those confines and they are consistently pushing the boundaries of heavy music. They don’t dress or act like a metal band. Their music videos are mostly lighthearted where puppets are more likely to be the star than actual band members. In the music video for ‘Show Yourself’ the band themselves don’t appear until the very end of the video and only appear for a few seconds making funny faces. It feels as much like a comedy skit as a music video. Most metal bands paint exclusively in shades of black and grey while Mastodon is not afraid to add some neon or pastel for variety. Maybe that means they are not a “metal” band. Call them a progressive hard rock comedy troupe for all I care, I personally enjoy listening to new and challenging music and appreciate when bands are allowed take creative risks and push forward.

‘Emperor of Sand’ is overall a fluid album that should please their original riffer madness fans as well as fans of their more modern hard rock style. Two of the released singles ‘Sultan’s Curse’ and ‘Andromeda’ should give you an idea of what to expect from this album, but some of the standout songs in my opinion are ‘Roots Remain’ and ‘Word To The Wise’. I think this album strikes a fair balance of being listenable to a wide audience while still being heavy and progressive. If you like your music completely abrasive then I would probably suggest that you skip this album, because Mastodon has already been there, done that.

Rating: 9/10

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Record Label: Reprise
Release Date: March 31st 2017

Track Listing:
01. Sultan’s Curse (4:09)
02. Show Yourself (3:03)
03. Precious Stones (3:46)
04. Steambreather (5:03)
05. Roots Remain (6:28)
06. Word To The Wise (4:00)
07. Ancient Kingdom (4:54)
08. Clandestiny (4:28)
09. Andromeda (4:05)
10. Scorpion Breath (3:19)
11. Jaguar God (7:56)

Total Duration: 51:11

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