Emperor of Sand review by Mastodon

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  • Released: Mar 31, 2017
  • Sound: 9
  • Lyrics: 9
  • Overall Impression: 9
  • Reviewer's score: 9 Superb
  • Users' score: 8.8 (142 votes)
Mastodon: Emperor of Sand

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.

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"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.

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61 comments sorted by best / new / date

    ~Maxi King~
    I can agree in almost any aspect, but  
    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. 
    seems a bit like a stretch to me. Those albums had absolute killer tracks on them.
    I don't get it either, Once More Round The Sun is what finally got me into Mastodon and is my fav after CTS, i don't know, i just love the way Once More Round The Sun Flows unlike the other albums. Then again, i also like Emperor more than The Hunter, i guess it's just me.
    Maybe it's just that those two albums didn't do it for me, personally. A lot of people liked them, and they're great albums, but those are the two albums I find are most likely to have people say "ehn, not feeling it" about.
    I actually really like The Hunter, but I definitely have the opinion that Once More Round The Sun was a step back for them. I never really connected with that one, and I tried really hard. But that's my personal opinion, if people like them then more power to them!
    I think this album has the best production of their whole discography. Shoutout to  Brendan O'Brien for nailing the sludge/hard rock and prog sound we all expect from Mastodon
    Definitely. The production along with all of it's trippyness is awesome. But I hear some clipping in Steambreather at 4:34 which I just can't ignore. There's huge amount of clipping in Black tongue at Live at Brixton (round 2:46) as well and I heard it at other places. I couldn't find who mastered these records though. Not something worth disregarding the tracks for but just annoys me.
    For me it's a fucking amazing album. I bought it Saturday, it is currently Wednesday, and I have been listening to nothing but this. And it hasn't stopped giving me goosebumps. Roots Remain and Word To The Wise, along with Andromeda, are probably the heavy highlights. Every member gives it their all, both instrumentally and vocally. Scorpion Breath sounds like Leviathan and Blood Mountain fucked in violent ways. But the best is the closure. Jaguar God is a beautiful song, beautiful songwriting, and it fucking connects me, gives me goosebumps and somehow hope. Wow. Although, this album came out at exactly the right time..I'm going through a rough patch..
    I cringed the first time I heard Show Yourself, but it actually grew on me. It's extremely poppy, but it moves, and has good guitar and drum work.
    I feel the same way about 'Curl of the Burl' and 'The Motherload'. In isolation, they're weirdly simple and 'poppy' tunes. Placing these songs immediately after strong, engaging opening tracks gives your ears a comparative break, giving the album a chance to build up again throughout the other songs. It's kind of genius. A lot of bands have said that picking a sequence for the songs on their albums is the most difficult part of the process, but I can't think of a single misplaced song on a Mastodon album. 
    Could be the most poppy song they have recorded, and like you it has grown on me a bit.  That being said, when being compared to the rest of the tracks on the album I think its the weakest link.  I actually think I would like it more if there were no vocals.
    The summary part that you mention in the review is what I have in mind too when I listen to the record. There is the early sludge, the mid-discography prog and the latter alt-rock melodies.  The production is great, the guitars are heavy and complex as they always are, the vocals are the bests they ever performed, the solos are out of this planet. Maybe the only thing that I miss a little bit is the "all over the place" drums from the early stuff : it's more straight, more conventional. Makes sense when your drummer is becoming the lead vocalist in a lot of songs I guess...  Solid record, definitely, they never disappoint (I liked the previous 2 as much as the ones before, probably making me a fanboy of some sort..., but calling those record missteps is too strong).  Last thing, Jaguar God is The Sparrow, isn't it ? 
    I still found the drums quite crazy and all over the place, actually. I think it's more about contrast now, though. Like, playing something simpler to make the more complex parts pop out more. Either way, on this album, you're still going to hear drumming on a level you're not going to hear with most bands. And I still wouldn't call the last two albums "missteps", just that they're about as close as Mastodon ever got to that. The only two albums I've heard a larger number of people say "ehn" about. Even more so than albums like Crack The Skye which were more love-it-or-hate-it deals.
    Got you on the misstep part. For the drums, I remember being really blown away for the first couple of times I listened to Remission, which was a determining record in my musical journey. I was blown away because drums weren't played as anything I've ever had heard. I mean, it didn't play the presumed role of a drumkit, which is rhythm, but was rather a guitar. From their own confession, they tried to use drums as another melodic instrument in their early material. And this made Mastodon that special to me. I just feel like they abandoned that aspect with time. But yes, sure, the drums on the record are great, top notch actually. 
    Amazing album. Everything I hoped for and more. I was sceptical after hearing "Show Yourself" but man. Even though I initially disliked it, I couldn't get it out of my head. It's simple but incredibly effective, and has grown on me to become one of their most memorable "radio friendly" tracks across their entire discography.  Not a single track on this album is bad, to me. It's all fantastic. Somehow hooky, proggy and heavy at the same time.
    Listening to this just now. Took me a couple of runs before I started to dig it. 'Steambreather' being the immediate stand out track on my first run. Brann's voice sounds excellent on this record too. Is it their best record? IMO, no - CtS is still the pinnacle for me. Is it a good record nonetheless? Absolutely.
    Yeah, that's another thing: it does take a couple of listens to really get into it. If you're not digging it now, give it a couple more spins first before you decide it's a bad album  
    It's a great album. It is spinning on my record player non-stop. So I can agree with the review, except for one thing. The still on going comparison to Crack the Skye. They set the bar skye high with that record, but we need to learn to see this record and upcomning records in their own perspective. Is it a great record? Do you like the concept? Do you like listening to it until you have aged so much that you get a discount at the travel agencies? 
    Enjoyed the review, well thought out words on a monster of an album! I keep discovering new things every listen, right now i'm currently very into the guitar solos on this, previously it was the lyrics, and before that the amazing art work - the album just keeps giving!
    Easily the best thing since CTS, and is probably up there with BM (though it's a bit early to tell). The start is a bit slow, Sultan's curse is great but the next three tracks were honestly forgettable (I still think show yourself sounds like it was written and recorded in an a day), but everything from then onwards is just gold. The pop sensibility is there in the massive choruses, the prog is back in full force, the weird sounds from BM make a return, and even a tiny bit of Leviathan in tracks like Andromeda (an era which I started to accept the band would never return to), and I like how nearly every song use all 3 vocalists (unless someone can show me a point where bill sings). I'm so glad the band did what they do best and didn't water their sound down for marketing sake, these guys really pulled through with this one.
    For some reason, this album doesn't do it for me.  I respect the musicianship, but the songs aren't grabbing me like previous albums.  
    I don't agree with you, but I love how you stated your opinion man, cheers to that!
    How am I the only person who feels disappointed....again. While you can tell it is a mastodon record the 'Sand' has worn away their rough edges that made them unique and gave them character (see what I did there). I will continue to listen to this record as much as possible in the hope I am missing something, but in the meantime I guess I will just have get over my 'Crack the Skye' obsession (the bar.....it's just so high).
    It did take a couple of listens before I really started to go "whoa, this is actually really good". I was actually kind of close to dismissing the album on my very first listen.
     After having a bit more time to listen to 'Emperor of Sand', I feel that although I was initially not impressed I have warmed to it. I believe like with most albums, certain themes and styles attract you to them. With Emperor, the thing that hooks me in (although are not necessarily the most impressive features) are some of the choruses. For this my four key songs are: Roots Remain Word To The Wise Ancient Kingdom Clandestiny Like I said before they hook me in and I find myself singing along in a somewhat (and I hope) 'grown up angsty way' *Insert Neutral face here*. It was a similar case with 'Once More Round the Sun', I found that 'The Motherload' and 'Tread Lightly' choruses were its only redeeming features. Although I can appreciate the intricate musicianship that is always prevalent on every mastodon album, perhaps the reason for my gravitation to their chorus work makes sense as they poured a lot of personal emotions into this album. It is apt that what may be the most emotional part of a song would be its most attractive aspect. On a Scale of Once More Round The Sun to Crack The Skye I give it a solid 6.75 (if that's even possible).
    It's going to be hard to top Crack the Sky. If not impossible. I felt like you did at first. But I've come around to it now and I really enjoy 'Sand'.  Give it a few more spins my man, maybe try headphones to really feel it out. There's tons of great tones and other fun things thrown into this record. And if you haven't already check out Troy's other band Killer Be Killed. You might really like that stuff.
    I think I was just so disappointed with once more round the sun, that I'm associating to much with it. I'm sure a switch will flick at some point.
    I know how you feel and what you mean. CtS is my favourite album (in general) and they can't top it if you look at it from a CtS-perspective. This has more songwriting and sound progressiveness (like Jaguar God with it's boyband-like first part that transforms into the most un-boyband thing there is, an almost 2 minute-long guitar solo. I would even call it Zappa-esque). Like the 4:26-part of Roots Remain and the 1:47-part of Clandestiney along with the 2nd part of Jaguar God are really 70's trippy prog rock. And stuff like those extra backing vocals at 2:59 in Andromeda. And furthermore there a lot, and really a lot of guitar solo's to enjoy. CtS is more of a dark, riffy/chord trip while EoS is whirlwind of songwriting/stories/sound design with still a lot of awesome prog-riffs. Try to embrace it that way. The Hunter grew a bit one me, but I'm still not a big fan of OMRTS. This album is very ambitious and carefully crafted, what I want and expect from Mastodon so I'm happy.
    Some of the chorus hooks are growing on me. I've been listening to remission a lot recently and I think I miss their punk like rolling thunder riffs and randomness. Listening to CTS especially The Czar, you can picture the epic visions that they are trying to portray, and the intricate guitar sounds perfectly compliment every aspect of the songs (man I sound pretentious, and yes I did listen to it on vinyl with a glass of red). 
    Honestly, and I might get hate for this, I like this record slightly more than Crack The Skye. That could very well be because I've listened to CTS so many times that I have every note memorized, but I think too that this album just sounds so much more fun. They sound like they're having an absolute blast.
    Ole' Nessie
    I have been listening to this album non stop and I am loving the mix of some old sounding Mastodon, mixed in with some newer sounding Mastodon. You can hear the obvious blood mountain, leviathan and crack the Skye shout outs, but also can hear bits of the hunter in the closer, and hear bits of OMRTS in ancient kingdom. I think the vocals were well done by everyone, love the little random sounds all thru the album, and Brents guitar solos are so Hendrix-ish and he was on fire on this album! Even better than what I expected
    This album feels like a Mastodon -lite to me. Even the two previous albums had their moments of brilliance. The mixing on this one sounds weird, it just doesn't have that signature Mastodon quirkiness in the songwriting either. The best track on the album is Jaguar God and even that is kinda like The Last Baron pt 2 in a bad way.  Brann has a beautiful voice but he signs here so much that it takes away from his drumming. He signs so much at points that I forget that I'm listening to a Mastodon record sometimes.  I don't want him to be all over the drumset all the time, nothing like that. But I miss the crazy drumming of Mastodon quite a bit.  It's not to fair to compare to this their absolute peak of creativiness; Crack the Skye but this album hasn't nowhere near the same flow as the songs on that album had. Neither it has the riffage brilliance of Blood mountain or Leviathan.
    Not every album is going to please everyone. I think this is a fantastic album, personally. I think most guitarists will agree CTS is the gold standard. This one is different but in a fantastic way, and I think we would have been bored if they made just another version of CTS.
    Not at all trying to bash the band, but i just cant quite get into them. Can someone help me out with some good tracks to try out to get into them a little more? They seem like they would be awesome but everything I have heard so far just isnt quite doing it for me
    Depends on what you've listened to, and the style of music you like. Their more accessible radio songs are like The Motherload, Curl of the Burl, Show Yourself, Oblivion. If you prefer heavier stuff then check out stuff in the older days, like Blood and Thunder, The Wolf is Loose, Mother Puncher. Or if you prefer some crazy prog masterpiece check out The Czar, The Last Baron, and Jaguar God. On a lighter side, some more passive songs include The Sparrow, Creature Lives, The Hunter, Pendulous Skin, and like sort of Elephant Man (that one gets a little heavy mid song). Typically their most beloved albums are Crack the Skye, Leviathan, Remission, and Blood Mountain. However, most of the songs on Remission and Leviathan sound basically the same. Their other albums (being The Hunter, Once More Round the Sun, and this one) tend to be less heavy and more accessible. Hope this helps
    Hey thanks for such a thoughtful response I really appreciate it! I'm gonna have to start working through some of these suggestions and figure what works for me!
    Ive never been a huge mastodon fan, but this isnt even metal. Zzzzzz.
    I like a few of the songs but I'm not hearing it reach the heights of CtS or before then in terms of pure composition. On a refinement level, it's pretty up there but like... it's just missing something, some kind of 'lets push this a bit more' that's making me less impressed.  I'm not gonna say 'Emperor of Bland' but if you're feeling mean, do feel free to nick that one. 
    This is a pretty severe disappointment, a very generic and lackluster album really.
    This album is a fucking masterpiece and I'm not saying this because everybody is saying this. I really mean it. My personal highlight is Steambreather, phenomenal!
    On first listen, anyone else find themselves yelling "FINALLY!  ABOUT TIME" when the riffage started in Jaguar God? I've been listening non-stop repeat since it came out, and while there are good parts, they just sound older.  Jaguar God seemed to be like "We'll show 'em we can still crush." Brent's solos, while there are standout parts, just sound like one-offs.  (Not Hammett Level, but one-offs all the same.) I agree with a poster above that CTS set the bar impossibly high, and there have been several awesome tracks on the last 2 since then...but I am a little bummed & underwhelmed overall.  6.5/10
    I thought the exact same thing during Jaguar God. I also enjoyed Steambreather and Andromeda, but their songwriting has become quite predictable during the past few years IMO. Still, some pretty tasty riffs and harmonies here and there!
    I know I'm totally getting shit for this, but I found this album straight up boring. If I hadn't listened to anything from Mastodon before, I'm pretty sure I would've loved this, but it just feeld like a band trying to emulate Mastodon.  The last 2 tracks are absolute killers, Steambreather is a stand out too, the rest is just boring and predictable. It lacks that Mastodon edge they had until The Hunter, can't really explain it, just feels too safe for them. I completly understand why people are praising this album, but it will forever be extremely overrated in my mind AS A MASTODON ALBUM.
    By far the worst Mastodon album IMO. Their last release was great but this is pretty poor, the riffs are more generic and none of the songs are memorable. It's like a middle ground between old Mastodon and the newer catchier Mastodon, except it doesn't do old Mastodon well (say unlike Chimes at Midnight which is an excellent song) and it's not catchy or memorable at all (unlike Curl of the Burl or The Motherload for example). The only passing songs are tracks 2 & 3. There's nothing really new here, it's just like a poor mashup of old Mastodon or the 'Mastodon' sound without any of the magic.  The production isn't that great either. It sounds pretty flat and doesn't really 'pop' out of the speakers. It just sounds like it's produced like Crack The Skye to appease fans or because they ran out of ideas and just copied their old sound. 
    I'm with you on this one. I've listened to I a few times and I still find it kind of bland. It has a few sick guitar riffs but overall the album is for the birds. Won't be long until it collects dust.
    Sounds exactly like the previous albums, same riffs, same sound. I think they are pretty overrated. The overall singing is getting a little bit more pop-sidy with every release though. Expecially the mainstream style singing annoys me!
    One of the worst death metal albums i've ever heard. The infamous Mastodon is no longer the sheer brutality force they once were. Amongst the silver lining of this album, lie one truth that may require attention; the gods speak before us and Mastodon must overcome their fears. Death metal shall rise within their souls.
    Saw them last night here in Denver.  A few observations: Russian Circles: They were OK.  Every song sounds like it's leading up to some immense epic part...but they never get there.  VERY repetitive.  C+ Eagles of Death Metal: I'm sure they have their fans, but wayyyy too hokey for my tastes.  C Mastodon:  Musically the mightiest band on the planet right now.  Setlist was a good mix of slabs of vintage riffage & some of the lighter new stuff.  Vocally, Brann & Troy were good, but once again, for the 3rd time in the last couple of years, Brent's voice was SHOT.  Again.  It's 1 week into the tour, and his parts on Divinations, The Wolf Is Loose, etc.  were absolutely awful.  I don't know if there is a solution, but it was distracting to the point of (almost) ruining the songs.  Without Brent's vocals, it was an A+.  I'll give it an A- since that's the only complaint I can have.
    im not mental
    Maybe it needs to grow on me, but I don't feel like anything on this album really stood out. Seems like a step back from Once More Round The Sun