Once incapable of fault as a household name in the world of metal, Mastodon have seen a lot of scrutiny following their 2009 prog opus Crack The Skye. It was an immediate critical hit and the general consensus was that it was an instant classic. Indeed, Crack the Skye still holds up and hasn’t aged much at all, but it did prove to be a turning point in the band’s career. The sludge metal pioneers slowed down, reigned in the technical showmanship, and started writing more straightforward rock songs in their own style and aesthetic. Crack The Skye‘s followups The Hunter and Once More Round The Sun were by no means terrible, critically panned slogs, but the fanbase became divided over the clear stylistic evolution happening.
People missed Leviathan, and that’s okay. But we have Leviathan and a legion of copycats if you know where to look. At this stage in their careers, Mastodon have afforded the luxury of evolution due to setting precedents and moving in increments across each record. In hindsight, Leviathan‘s follow-up Blood Mountain was the perfect warning of Crack The Skye and serves as a comfortable bridge between the two. The band have already declared their intentions; they’re clearly more concerned about writing prog rock records that are fun to perform and listen to than the heady technical sludge records released in their early days. As weird as it is to say that their latest effort Emperor of Sand — a deeply personal concept record about a mystical physical manifestation of cancer — is a lot of fun, the larger than life riffs, grooves, and harmonic vocal hooks are undeniable earworms that retain a clear and focused Mastodon sound.
Defying the projected evolution into an arena rock band, Emperor of Sand blends perfectly Crack The Skye‘s sludgy progressive metal aesthetic with the songwriting and succinct hook delivery of The Hunter and Once More Round The Sun, perhaps serving as a summation of this “second phase” of their discography. Opening track and lead single “Sultan’s Curse” is a dead ringer for a Crack The Skye B-side (in the best way possible) with cosmic guitars arping behind huge, heavy riffs before being immediately followed but the controversial “Show Yourself,” the band’s turn at catchy rock jams a la Queens of the Stone Age and Foo Fighters. Immediately, a dichotomy and expectation for the album at large would be established, but what follows offers some surprisingly heavy material.
“Andromeda” bolsters a dissonant showstopper of a riff. “Steambreather” is a lumbering sludge groove carried by bassist Troy Sanders’s fuzzy punch, which is often washed out otherwise. “Scorpion Breath” features the token Scott Kelly (Neurosis) guest spot and in turn fittingly embraces the Mastodon legacy style. Finale “Jaguar God” is a dynamic eight-minute track that holds nothing back, seeing the band at their most emotional before building up to the most ridiculous angular guitar riff heard from Mastodon yet.
Emperor of Sand is without a doubt the most tonally cohesive and balanced Mastodon record since Crack The Skye and restores some faith in the act in their ability to develop conceptual records fitting of the first half of their discography. It balances high-concept prog with the weight of sludge and the emotional vulnerability necessary to carry a story about cancer without getting lost in itself. While it won’t do longtime fans pining for a return to Leviathan any favors, Emperor of Sand is in many ways a return to form and a powerful record.
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Mastodon’s Emperor of Sand is available March 31st, 2017 via Reprise Records. Pre-orders are available at this location.