Prog-rock kings Mastodon have done it again, creating another compelling concept album in their latest release, Emperor of Sand. With depth and complexity unseen in many other American metal bands, Mastodon continue to prove that the best heavy music is intricate and sonically dynamic.
While the band continually resists labels and draws from a deeper creative well than most, Emperor only reaffirms their superior talent. The strongest tracks are “Sultan’s Curse” and “Ancient Kingdom,” while other songs — “Roots Remain,” “Clandestiny,” “Steambreather” — feel like older Mastodon. In other words, they're solidly packed with percussive acrobatics, time changes and attention-grabbing arrangements.
The new songs recalling older Mastodon tunes shouldn't be surprising considering Brendan O'Brien produced the album — as he did on Mastodon's 2009 release, Crack the Skye. And of course, as on all their albums, Scott Kelly of Neurosis makes a cameo; here the track is called “Scorpion Breath.”
Surprises unfold in songs like the rare harmonic and lyrical beauty in the acoustic opening of "Jaguar God.” Dailor’s drumming intro to “Ancient Kingdom” is the kind of performance that will make you sit up and listen with focused concentration to his impeccable style. Perhaps the only weak spot (if one can even call it that) is the oddly poppish first minute of “Show Yourself,” which lacks the muscle the rest of the record flexes on every song.
But one minute out of 50 isn’t too bad, especially considering the orchestration of the music, concept and theme.
Dailor recently told SPIN that Emperor of Sand dealt with “death, disease, famine,” to which guitarist Bill Kelliher added, “…time and what you do with it.” Time is a concept they’ve touched upon before in their 2014 release, Once More ’Round the Sun, the continuation of 2011's The Hunter.
No doubt Emperor is a topically progressive and ambitious undertaking, yet to call Mastodon "progressive" isn’t really accurate or fair. They’ve continually defied or challenged whatever musical caste they’ve been assigned from the very beginning. Their earliest work, 2002's Remission, was defined as sludge or doom metal; in 2009, Rolling Stone called them “the greatest heavy-metal band of their generation”; now they’re known as “prog-rock.” Just don’t expect Mastodon to agree — as guitarist Brent Hinds told Guitar Player, “I never liked heavy metal in the first place.”
He repeated the point again when he recently proclaimed Judas Priest wasn’t heavy metal. Hinds may be the choleric clown of the group, making headlines with his moony antics and irascible quotes, but there is no weak member of Mastodon. Each man brings a unique magic to the band's overall sound and imagery — including Hinds's genius guitar work, which does much to orchestrate their chaos.
Never a band to be daunted by dolorous or complex themes, Mastodon on previous albums have dealt with a variety of intensely personal topics and even classic literature. Their beloved 2004 release, Leviathan, explored themes from Herman Melville’s classic 19th-century novel Moby Dick.
One theme that remains a constant throughout their discography is suffering. Personal tragedy has often been a subtext in their work, as Crack the Skye (2009) dealt with the suicide of Dailor’s younger sister. Emperor is no different.
Life’s lessons are not lost on the Atlanta quartet. Dour and dark subjects continually appear, among them the cancer diagnosis of bassist Troy Sanders's wife in 2015 and the ongoing cancer battle of Dailor’s mother. Mastodon haven’t been shy about their personal struggles, nor have they belabored them through unnecessary repetition in their music, either.
This is not an angst-ridden emo band hell bent on pathetically duplicating the same painful moment onstage night after night. Mastodon have exponentially and eloquently evolved far beyond that. There’s no self-conscious bleeding for art’s sake or tired, sanctimonious rage of the kind that inhabits so much of American popular metal.
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On the contrary, Mastodon creatively redeems emotional heaviness through a fascinating collection of thematic musical statements. Mastodon’s albums do something few other bands have ever achieved: They create an artistic tapestry in and of themselves.
However, while each record stands on its own as a statement, Mastodon's entire canon enables a lengthy, broader discussion. These albums are more than a tetralogy; they are an elemental leitmotif: water (Leviathan), earth (Blood Mountain), air (Crack the Skye) and fire (One More ‘Round the Sun), all while exploring the oldest question known to man: Why are we here?
“We’re reflecting on mortality,” Sanders recently told Rolling Stone .
While they reflect on life's greater mysteries, we're content to reflect on this album knowing we've only begun to peer into its depths of dunes and death.