Metal, as a genre, is a diverse and complex beast with many heads. There’s trash, there’s doom, there’s black, there’s metalcore, there’s sludge, there’s djent, and the list can go on. But when it comes to Mastodon the criticism that has been levied at them in recent times is about not being metal enough. Where do you draw the line? There’s been a mixed response to the first few singles on their latest album Emperor of Sand, with “Show Yourself” being ‘not metal enough’ but I always like to see how a song fits into the overall context of an album before making a judgment. As a stand-alone track it does seem more hard rock than straight up metal, but Mastodon have been walking that fine line for a while now and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
There has been a conscious departure from the concept album days of Leviathan and Crack the Skye.
The band themselves said they didn’t enjoy playing these kind of songs live and wanted to make people move. As bands spend a large portion of time on the road, I can see why this would be a factor. The Hunter and Once More Round the Sun are more straightforward, riff laden and, groove driven rather than story driven. Some fans have been disappointed with this direction, but I get why and I enjoy this side of Mastodon.
Emperor of Sand is the middle ground. It’s not full on prog-metal but there is a common theme that holds all the songs together.
The subject of mortality and time being valuable fuelled by the band’s own personal lives (which are well reported on and I won’t go into here). The difference here is that the meaning is hidden behind metaphors or characters, it’s very open lyrically and very brave in that respect. This plain to see on “Steambreather” with the lyrics “I wonder who I am, Reflections offer nothing, I wonder who where I stand, I’m afraid of myself.” It’s not often you hear heavy music combined with lyrics so deeply personal, exposing their deepest fears. It could come across as a bit over dramatic, but I think it’s refreshing and helped me connect deeper with the record.
For those who were concerned about how ‘metal’ this record is, I think you’d have to work hard to complain about what Mastodon have served up here.
As was teased in some of the making of videos on YouTube, Bill Kelliher (guitarist) has brought the riffs. The main riff that drivers “Andromeda” is filthy in the best possible way. There’s also some slower, drop tuned riffs such as “Steambreather” as well as the signature Mastodon Crack the Skye-esque intertwining chord progressions. There’s a lot to like here.
Of course Mastodon aren’t just about the guitars with a drummer like Brann Dailor in the band. His snare fills and general drum-wizardry really lifts songs and gives them depth. Dailor has also added more restrained moments where he sits in the pocket serving the song and keeping it groovy. When you consider what he brings with his drumming, vocals, and songwriting; Brann Dailor is a vital component of what makes Mastodon, Mastodon. This is evident right across the record.
Vocally Emperor of Sand is the strongest Mastodon have been. None of the band members are natural vocalists and it’s taken work over time, but that work has paid off.
This is what makes them so unique, having a different vocal type to suit different moods. It gives their songs so much more depth and it has been utilised excellently all over Emperor of Sand. Brann’s clean, higher register vocals contrast the guttural grit from Troy Sanders perfectly. As does the unique and slightly nasal attack from Brent Hinds. Each vocalist has his place and no one is under or over used. It’s another example of Mastodon prioritising serving the song.
Overall there is little to find fault with here. On it’s own, it is an adventurous, lyrically deep, and captivating metal/rock record. When put alongside the varied Mastodon back catalogue, it holds it’s own. There are elements of Crack The Skye and their more progressive side, whilst still carving their own new path and making music that is exciting and different to what you hear coming from metal at the moment. They are becoming one of those bands who you could describe as peerless. There are few who do what Mastodon do as well and as consistently from album to album. Whether you were excited or were disappointed by the first few singles on Emperor of Sand, there’s much more beneath the surface and well worth your time and attention.
Emperor of Sand is featured in our best albums of March.