Mastodon built their cult following by boiling dense high fantasy and sci-fi lyrical concepts in a caustic sonic cauldron of sludge, stoner metal and hard rock. They’ve since managed to climb higher and higher on the Billboard 200 (2014’s Once More ‘Round the Sun peaked at number six) by slightly softening their sound and forgoing zonked stories of dimension-hopping czars and future-sighted sasquatches.
The newly released Emperor of Sand successfully fuses the high concept, high volume grind of the Atlanta metal band’s older material with the more melodic immediacy of their last two records. It also marks the first time the group’s personal lives have been so detectable in their songwriting.
In >interviews Mastodon revealed that the record’s story of a cursed journey through a barren desert actually serves as a loose metaphor for someone suffering from cancer. The roots of this story are sadly real, as rhythm guitarist Bill Kelliher’s mother died of brain cancer shortly before the album was recorded.
Mastodon soundtrack this harrowing trek with a reliably heavy mix of oozing riffage, scorching leads and crushing drum fills. However, for all of the powerful storytelling and fiery performances on display here, Emperor of Sand shows its Achilles’ Heel when the band’s authentic personal trauma is channeled into cheesy melodrama.
That said, there’s no denying the album’s explosive “opener “Sultan’s Curse.” The song is a thrilling volley of tectonic riffs that slam against searing licks as bassist Troy Sanders, lead guitarist Brent Hinds and drummer Brann Dailor trade vocals to begin building the album’s unrelenting desert landscape.
Dailor, already a powerful drummer, also happens to be the band’s best, most technically gifted singer. His clear soaring voice is often used to cut through the fury of his bandmates for a sense of greater emotional heft. Here though, he’s relegated to delivering the album’s most cringey lyrical pitfalls.
At the start of “Roots Remain,” Sanders’ hoarse burr describes a swallowing hole in the sky against instrumentation that genuinely sounds like the Earth being turned asunder. Then, during the song’s plodding bridge, Dailor is introduced to passionately croon this clunky turn of phrase: “The end is not the end you see/it’s just the recognition of a memory.” These lyrical landmines greatly stunt the record’s first half. The dizzying gallop of “Steambreather” is easily forgotten once the eye-rolling chorus of “I wonder where I stand/I’m afraid of myself” is placed front and center.
The album’s latter half fairs better. “Ancient Kingdom” is an epic ride from beginning to end, with a towering chorus offset with tolling bells and twin incendiary guitar leads. Later, “Andromeda” offers perhaps the greatest example of what Mastodon can achieve when combining the immediacy of The Hunter with the fury of Blood Mountain. The track’s verses revolve around Kelliher’s paint peeling riff while the chorus features bright, mystical leads that match nicely with Dailor’s description of “time watching as sand flows through glass.” The track concludes with a furious breakdown and a strained scream by guest vocalist Kevin Sharp of Brutal Truth.
While it won’t fill the void left all those years ago in the mighty Leviathan’s wake and features a few gratingly saccharine moments, Emperor of Sand is full of passionate performances and serves as one of Mastodon’s most surprising and relatable releases yet.