Once More Round the Sun left Mastodon fans with a number of questions regarding the future of the band. Following their most "mainstream" effort to date, the Atlanta quartet received a fair amount of praise and criticism. Fans, both long-standing and new, seemed to part into two separate camps. People applauded the band for their attempts at a new direction. Once More Round the Sun was Mastodon's first full attempt at a radio breakthrough. However, there were a handful of fans who did not agree with the praise, citing further separation from Mastodon's original sound. Yet, Atlanta's metal giants saw great critical success at year's end.
Enter Emperor of Sand, Mastodon's seventh studio album. Whether they meant to or not, this new album clears up some lingering questions. The direction of the band lies somewhere between full-blown mainstream and a return to roots (of sorts.) Mastodon has brought back the narrative-driven album, last seen on Crack the Skye. Drummer Brann Dailor described the album's story as:
“A Sultan in the desert hands down a death sentence to this guy. He’s running from that. He gets lost, and the sun is zapping all of his energy akin to radiation. So, he’s trying to telepathically communicate with these African and Native American tribes to get rain to pour down and kill it.”
While the narrative grew organically as the album developed, the early writing for the music was born in tragedy. Guitarist Bill Kelliher's mother became ill and unfortunately succumbed to brain cancer in 2016. This loss found its way into Mastodon's new album. Emperor of Sand has a darker tone than the last couple of albums.
While darker in tone, Emperor of Sand dazzles. Mastodon's musical brilliance is on full display. The versatility of their sound is arguably the greatest it has ever been. What initially stands out is the vast improvement from the sound that characterized Once More Round the Sun. The front half of Emperor of Sand features anthemic rock 'n' roll songs. "Show Yourself" and "Steambreather" are some the band's most lyrically accessible songs to date. Drummer Brann Dailor's continued growth and comfort as a vocalist is a result of repetition. He has been performing as a third vocalist since Crack the Skye. Now, Emperor's first five songs see him flex vocal prowess that (almost) rivals his pedigree as a drummer. Dailor has moved from singing choruses and hooks to full songs with his crystalline tenor (seriously, "Steambreather".)
If the former half of the album were to be defined by Dailor and Mastodon's rock evolution, then the latter half is an indulgence in nostalgia. The thunderous flow that marked albums like Blood Mountain returns. Brent Hinds and Kelliher are two of modern music's greatest guitarists. The years together in the studio and on the road has created a dynamic repertoire of rhythm and riffs. "Word to the Wise", "Andromeda", and "Scorpion Breath" exemplify the duo's interplay. Troy Sanders's gritty growl and bass have also been a mainstay in Mastodon's sound. His booming vocal performance and low-end work anchor the band and, like it has for the better part of their career, provides a harsher contrast to the growing vocal responsibilities of Hinds and Dailor.
Much like most of Mastodon's previous albums, Emperor of Sand features a guest appearance from Neurosis's Scott Kelly. His help on "Scorpion Breath" continues a tradition of Kelly on the band's albums that started back on Leviathan. Additionally, "Andromeda" features guest vocals from Kevin Sharp of Brutal Truth. These two songs are some of the "heaviest" moments on Emperor. Everything concludes with "Jaguar God", a fitting end to a powerful album. An eight-minute track that morphs from an acoustic ballad to a cosmic banger by its conclusion.
Emperor of Sand has been 17 years in the making. Since the turn of the century, Mastodon has been one of the most prolific metal acts to come around. They have evolved from a relentless sludge band to a progressive force and now into a critically-acclaimed mainstream act. Throughout it all, the same four men have stuck together as brothers through thick and thin. Emperor stands as much of a testament to the band's personal cohesion as it does the evolution of the band's sound. The members of Mastodon have a unique understanding of each other's talents. Consequently, this has resulted in the band's strongest material in a decade. They continue to learn from one another and even as they push towards 20 years together, they are finding new and exciting ways to broaden Mastodon's dominion over rock and metal.
Amazon is having a sale on the album ahead of it's 3/31/17 release, with the CD on sale for $9.99, MP3 version $9.49. Get it here.