Mastodon are one of the few modern bands that have an identity. In this modern age of unoriginality and imitation they stand uniquely on their own mountaintop, honing their distinct style. Starting their career with more sludge influences, they have continued to add more melody and rock to mix with their progressive approach.
With the release of their seventh full length Emperor Of Sand, can they sustain building on the impressive resume they have already attained? There are many individual attributes that separate Mastodon from their peers. Whether it’s utilizing three different vocalists, Brann Dailor’s superior drumming, Brent Hinds’ chaotic lead guitar approach or Bill Kelliher’s angular riffs they all combine to create the beast we know as Mastodon.
Each release is its own universe. Mastodon have the ability to create a style that is completely their own, but generate enough diversity that each release inimitably stands alone. Emperor Of Sand is no different. A distinctive animal from its predecessors, it retains the core of their sound while bringing in new concepts.
Like a complex puzzle, the material needs to be put in its correct places to be fully seen (and heard). It needs to be absorbed and worked on to uncover the genius behind the songwriting. The theme of birth, death and the pain of living with cancer are woven throughout the entire album.
The journey a person takes from the inception of the disease to either the death or rebirth is brought to life within the lyrics. Each member painfully lost someone they loved to the disease during the writing sessions and that pain was used as a form of catharsis in the making of the album.
“Sultan’s Curse” flies out of the gate with a head crushing riff with Troy Sanders’ distinct vocals attacking alongside it. Sanders has the gruffest voice and he perfectly executes melody and aggression. Hinds continuously calls on his inner Ozzy during the chorus but Dailor makes his voice instantly heard in the superb bridge. The three vocal approach has become more refined as the singers blend together congruently.
As much as Hinds and Sanders have been the backbone of the Mastodon sound, Dailor more than ever makes his presence known vocally. The overtly poppy “Show Yourself’ is about as good as it gets. The first single showcases an incredibly catchy melody that will be stuck in your head for days while still retaining the amazing musicianship they so readily put on display.
Tracks like “Precious Stones,” ”Word To The Wise” and “Clandestiny” are all straight to the point and move along at a quick tempo. “Andromeda” and “Roots Remain” retain their progressive sides as they show off their incredible musical skills. Dailor in particular is one of the best drummers on the scene today. He applies the perfect blend of playing in the pocket and incorporating complex fills while never overplaying.
The album ends on the epic “Jaguar God.” Clocking in at eight minutes, it is a moving journey that takes the listener on a roller coaster of emotion. Starting with a mellow picked guitar passage the vocalists harmonize a gorgeous melody with Hinds voice coming to the forefront. It transitions from a 6/8 waltz into a straight 4/4 time about two minutes in with the tempo picking up. Sanders takes lead vocals for the middle refrain before the song jumps into the most intense part of the album. A killer riff by Kelliher ups the ante with Sanders bellowing over it as the intensity continues to build. The song ends with a gorgeous solo by Hinds as the song reverts back to the mellow intro as one reflects on a journey home after an intense battle to recollect their thoughts.
Returning is producer Brendan O’Brien, who last worked with them on the classic Crack The Skye. The streamlined songwriting is an excellent approach, but unfortunately the one area the album falls a little short is in the separation of the instrumentation, particularly the guitars. The mix can be a tad muddy at times and over compressed.
Emperor Of Sand is another masterpiece from a band that has never released anything short of that. The depth to the songwriting is impressive as the album flies by, begging to be listened to again and again. There isn’t a band today as important in the metal scene than Mastodon and with Emperor Of Sand they have presented a clear cut favorite for album of the year.
(released March 31st, 2017 on Reprise Records)