Sound — 9
I have to admit that at first, I had contemplated not even sending in a review, and just submitting a video to UG of me headbanging furiously and riffing out on guitar in lieu of actually reviewing this record. That's the usual effect Mastodon records have on me, and I think I speak for a lot of music fans on this site, and fans of modern hard rock and heavy metal in general. Mastodon have been one of the biggest driving forces defining modern heavy metal in the past decade, and so many accolades have been given to them, from Grammy nominations to topping annual year-end polls, and even getting clearance to record their guitar solos inside the moon! (But not ON the moon, sadly.)
With such a legacy of albums, probably one of the most consistently well-received discographies of any metal band, it really makes you wonder how a band like this can manage to keep things so fresh. "Emperor of Sand" is no exception to the rule for Mastodon records, embracing many of the qualities that have made the band so successful in the past. In fact, this album's sound can be said to combine traits from across the band's discography, from the progginess of "Blood Mountain" and "Crack the Skye" to the riff-heavy sounds of "Leviathan" and "Remission", to the concise and punchy songwriting of "The Hunter" and "Once More 'Round the Sun". Sonically, this album almost seems to be a summation of the band's career to date, and song by song, "Emperor of Sand" wastes no time getting this point across. "Sultan's Curse" is pure, distilled Mastodon, down to its stomping main riff, ripping Brent Hinds guitar solo, and bassist Troy Sander's incredible vocal performance. "Show Yourself" takes us on a bit more of a "desert rock" trip, evoking bands like Queens of the Stone Age with its more straightforward riff and drummer Brann Dailor's highly melodic vocals.
"Precious Stones" combines the two approaches, with a high-energy riff coupled with Brent Hind's vocals in the verses, and a more atmospheric tone in the choruses. "Steambreather" starts with the kind of sludgy drop-A tuned riff one would expect from Mastodon's earlier records, but juxtaposed with Brann's melodic vocals for a rather unique atmosphere, and is one of the more proggy pieces on the album. "Roots Remain" (or "Eons" if you're listening to the vinyl version. Don't worry, it's the same song) is probably the piece on the album that most closely resembles the band's "Crack The Skye" work, though, with its acoustic guitar and weird synth sound giving way to an absolutely killer riff and vocal melody, closing on piano and more strange synth sounds.
For me, "Word to the Wise" is a massive highlight on the album, featuring odd time signatures, excellent vocal performances from Sanders and Dailor, especially during the really epic chorus, and probably one of my favourite solo sections on the album, with two different riffs snaking between one another under an excellent solo from Brent Hinds. "Ancient Kingdom" also feels a bit like a throwback to "Crack the Skye", but with the kind of concise songwriting arrangements that Mastodon have used on their past couple of albums. It's another great highlight, nonetheless, with some really epic vocal melodies, and a great atmospheric chorus. Plus, another absolutely wicked guitar solo (that was recorded IN THE MOON!). Another one of my personal favourites from the record is "Clandestiny", which is another very prog-oriented piece, switching from one of the album's most crushing riffs to a very melodic and epic chorus, to an absolutely amazing old-school Minimoog synth solo that really gives the piece a 70s prog-rock vibe.
"Andromeda" features one of two vocal guest appearances, from Kevin Sharp of Brutal Truth, and revolves around a tritone guitar riff that's been revealed as the product of guitarist Bill Kelliher's imagination. Interspersed with this riff is a atmospheric, melodic part that, again, is very reminiscent of "Crack the Skye". "Scorpion Breath" contains the second vocal guest spot, given to someone who can almost be considered Mastodon's "fifth member", Scott Kelly of Neurosis, who has appeared on every album since "Leviathan". And the piece can be compared fairly easily to material from "Leviathan", with a much harsher approach to the vocals than any other song on the album, and a more consistently heavy atmosphere with a blistering pace. "Jaguar God", the album's closer, directly contrasts this with a softer, acoustic sound, not unlike other closing tracks on the band's past albums ("Pendulous Skin" and "Joseph Merrick" come to mind), but the song does quickly become a heavier tune, going through several tempo changes, almost feeling like several songs stuck together to form one piece. Despite this, it actually feels like a cohesive whole, and serves as the album's most progressive piece, more akin to "The Last Baron". It closes the album with one of the record's most emotive guitar solos, and a return to the song's initial melody, bringing the piece full circle.
The performances from all four band members are nothing short of heroic on the album, with the album moving through many different atmospheres, tons of extremely satisfying guitar and bass riffs, a slew of shredtastic guitar solos, some of the most extroverted drumming you'll hear this side of early 70s Rush, and yet, the band rarely ever overplays, laying back when the songs call for it, and going in full-throttle when the need arises. Brendan O'Brien's production is sludgy and loud as ever, but while the album's instrumentation and tones often evoke a rather vintage atmosphere, the production does keep things modern and tight. There does seem to be more reverb on parts of this album than past records, another point which probably warrants a comparison to "Crack the Skye". Even so, the album isn't drowned in effects to an annoying point, just when a part calls for it.
Lyrics — 9
Like many Mastodon albums, the lyrics take us on a journey, and tell a narrative story about a man sentenced to death, and wandering the desert. Along the way, the man confronts his own mortality, and eventually dies, but is redeemed. But the lyrics also serve as an allegory for the band's own personal experiences, dealing with cancer and how it has affected members of the band's families. More often than not, the album's lyrics are far from literal, and it's mostly left up to the listener's own imagination as to how a verse like "They're waiting inside/They're waiting to wash your eyes out/Their hands are alive/Alive with a fervent anger/Your feet have been tied and your tongue in your hand/Death of a thousand ravens/You're down on your knees/You're blind as the Ancient Kingdom", from "Sultan's Curse", ties in with the band members' personal experiences.
There are moments where one can almost hear hope in the main character's story, like on "Word to the Wise" when Brann sings "I'd fallen into a pit of lies/I try to dig around the other side/And much to my surprise/I was to blame for all the rain". But in terms of telling a story and setting an atmosphere, "Emperor of Sand" really hits the spot, and these are some really great lyrics. Even when the lyrics seem steeped in some kind of metal cliches, knowing the emotional weight behind them can really make sections like this one from "Scorpion Breath" hit hard: "It's so far beyond my reach/The crimson mask is rising black/The last setting sun/Will be seen in my dusted mind/Constantly burying our loves/In the trench of this/Mysterious despair/It leaves us empty/Clawing in".
Vocally, each member of the band is on top of their game. Bill Kelliher is the only member of the band not to perform lead vocals, meaning that the band has three very strong lead vocalists, each with their own distinctive flavour. Brann Dailor is the sweeter, more melodic of the three, Troy Sanders changes quite frequently from a melodic bellow to an almost raspy growl, while Brent Hinds has a much more classic rock, almost Ozzy-era Sabbath-esque voice, and all three of these vocalists compliment one another and the music perfectly. Brent Hinds does seem to take less of the lead vocals than he has on past works, and Brann more than any other album by the band, but it does seem that for the most part, the band has evened out the vocal performances more than any other album. Sanders is the only vocalist to receive a lead vocal credit for every song on the album.
Overall Impression — 9
While Mastodon are typically regarded as one of the few bands to have never released a bad album, admittedly, reaction to the band's past two records, "The Hunter" and "Once More Round the Sun" had been a bit more lukewarm than some of the band's past works, which are often regarded as absolute classics. A return to a strong lyrical concept and a tighter focus on playing to the band's musical strengths has made "Emperor of Sand" the first Mastodon album to really catch my attention since "Crack the Skye", and the band has learned quite a bit from looking back on their discography.
It's a bit too early to tell yet whether this album will be regarded as one of their best or not, but one of the big things that makes this album much stronger than their past two is that it actually feels like a strongly cohesive work. The songs are mostly short and punchy enough that they serve well enough on their own, but this is an album that really begs to be listened through in one sitting. There isn't really much to complain about on this album. Perhaps the production is a bit too much on the loud side for my tastes, and there aren't as many softer moments as I'd like to hear, leading to it being a bit of a fatiguing album to listen to if you're playing it just a little too loudly. But, much like many Mastodon albums past, this has been one of the most inspired, and inspiring, releases of the year, and after two albums that were about as close as Mastodon have ever gotten to a misstep, it almost feels like "Emperor of Sand" is a stunning return to form.