There’s something to be said about the parallels between METALLICA’s trajectory in the 1980s and that of MASTODON in the 21st century. MASTODON are in a way perhaps our equivalent, the first four albums – five if you count The Hunter as MASTODON’s Black Album – following a similar pattern.
The raw, violent but ludicrously exciting debut led to the band taking its core ideals and thinking bigger with them, pushing them into mind-blowing and practically untouchable territories. The sophomore record was a caustic masterstroke sending the collective metal consciousness into overdrive, the third album pushed it further still and captured a band firing on all cylinders summing up everything that made them special, and the fourth dived deeper into the progressive than ever before. Then there is of course after stretching things as far as they could go the condensing of their epic ideas into instantaneous, hard-hitting, radio-ready bangers, which they proved pretty damn excellent at as well. Just as METALLICA seemed to transcend the thrash scene they came from and define the story of 1980s heavy metal as a whole, in a 21st century landscape which sees metal in more diverse shapes and forms than ever, MASTODON are arguably its definitive band. This is where the comparison ends though, as where The Black Album would bring METALLICA world-conquering success on a scale never equalled by any heavy band and lead to Load and ReLoad, MASTODON are in uncharted territory going into the future.
It’s interesting then that for their seventh album Emperor of Sand, MASTODON have chosen to return to something they made their own over their first ten years of existence: the concept album. MASTODON have long had an ability to turn their personal demons and losses into something outlandish, extravagant and mesmerising, whether it be guitarist Brent Hinds’ late brother being memorialised in The Hunter or the dimension-jumping journey through Imperial Russia and the cosmos that was Crack the Skye stemming from the suicide of drummer Brann Dailor’s sister. In the case of Emperor of Sand, it is recent dealings with cancer that manifest themselves within, telling the tale of a man given a death sentence by a tyrannical sultan who escapes into the searing desert in a desperate attempt to outrun his encroaching end. Musically it is less of a return to their roots, sharing more with The Hunter than anything else in their back catalogue, but this gives Emperor of Sand a newfound thematic cohesion and sense of journey. It also gives the album a strong emotional core, both steeped in suffering and roaring determinedly in its face as it rises above it.
The sense of that merciless desert sun beating down upon its protagonist is inescapable throughout Emperor of Sand, MASTODON’s rolling thunderous riffs sending up dust choking the air from the get-go with the earthy rumble of Sultan’s Curse. Having had the same line-up on every one of their studio albums, MASTODON are a true unit with each member bringing a unique flavour to the table, and by this point they are instinctually in tune with each other. The insanely catchy Show Yourself is an exercise in perfect rock songwriting totally devoid of fat, Dailor opting to sit in his pocket for much of this album with less of the wild and ballistic flashes of old though his sheer level of talent still makes for an electrifying performance. MASTODON have certainly sounded more frenzied and savage vocally, but as actual singers Hinds, Dailor and bassist Troy Sanders are all arguably better than ever here. Sanders is positively explosive on Show Yourself, Hinds has more power behind his unorthodox wail while Jaguar God sees him exploring softer tones than he ever has before, and Dailor does a tremendous job of selling the aching anguish of these songs whether it be the absolutely stunning Steambreather or the heartbreaking chorus of Roots Remain.
In one of the studio videos released in the run up to the album Bill Kelliher spoke of having “no shortage of riffs”, and really that’s something you can always count on MASTODON for. They’re not quite as unpredictable as they have been in the past, but there are buckets of them, and throwing in a track like Andromeda housing the nastiest riff MASTODON have written in years alongside guest howls from BRUTAL TRUTH’s Kevin Sharp is most welcome. NEUROSIS’ Scott Kelly keeps up his streak of appearing on MASTODON albums on the warlike Scorpion Breath, and sprinklings of extra, more out there touches across the album keep the listener guessing. Word to the Wise’s upbeat riffing suddenly gives way to booming and imposing percussion that sound like the war drums of some barbaric civilisation, Ancient Kingdom’s chorus shimmers and glistens with huge ringing bells, and Clandestiny takes a swift and unexpected turn into bizarre and alien psychedelia halfway through complete with chattering robot voices. As the record climaxes with Jaguar God it takes a majestic leap into death itself, as the story’s protagonist succumbs to his surroundings but transcends, taking on the form of the mighty big cat as Hinds allows one of his most pure and emotive solos to pour out of him.
Emperor of Sand’s only real flaws come when it is compared to the flawless, the records with which MASTODON made their name and built their legacy. It very clearly belongs to this second post-Crack the Skye phase of MASTODON’s career, though it does an excellent job of tying this chapter to the previous one in a way that The Hunter and Once More ‘Round the Sun did not. With its fluid and captivating arc, addictive songs that have you coming back again and again, and poignant and inspiring emotional undercurrent, Emperor of Sand is yet another triumph for MASTODON, but it’s difficult to predict where they can go from here creatively without retreading old ground. Here in 2017 though the well has not yet run dry, and MASTODON have crafted a record with tremendous amounts of power and an incredible amount of heart.
Emperor of Sand is out March 31st on Reprise Records.
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