What’s to like?
Are the sands of time running low for Mastodon with album number seven, or is Emperor Of Sand possibly their finest, most complete hour yet?
The low down
Mastodon – the very name conjures up images of something that is incredibly heavy, relentless, unstoppable, and that’s before we even get to the band’s music!
With their tempestuous music arrangements and tendency to push the volume into the red, Mastodon aren’t always the easiest of bands to listen to for any period of time. But behind the blood and thunder there’s a genuinely creative band, brimming with energy and ideas in equal measure.
Their 2009 album Crack The Skye was lauded as a progressive metal classic, refining the rougher edges of their earlier grittier sound, adding in some keyboards for colour, and wrapping the whole package up in a wildly imaginative concept about astral body projection and travelling back through time to Czarist Russia. There was so much going on in that album that it took a while for me to grasp the underlying concepts, but the music was a winner from the first listen.
The band put out two further albums after that, but seemed to back off from their inner progger, with the songs becoming shorter and louder. It hasn’t held them back, as the Atlanta band’s popularity continues to grow, but Crack The Skye is still considered their benchmark album. However, it was then widely reported that album number seven, the Emperor Of Sand, would once again have an underlying concept behind it, and the band were reuniting with producer Brendan O’Brien who’d also helmed Crack The Skye.
So is Emperor a return to proggier pastures for the band, and has O’Brien’s production skills tempered the band’s sound into something a little less exhausting on the ears?
Well, it’s probably good news all round. From the opening track Sultan’s Curse, you can clearly tell that Mastodon haven’t changed their sound dramatically. There are still the same gargantuan sounding guitar riffs, thick and full-bodied, still propelled along by Brann Dailor’s hyper-kinetic drumming. But the sound mix is subtlely improved on the previous album. It’s still relatively loud, but not as compressed, and everything sounds a little more coloured and warmer. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the improvement is on this album, but I definitely enjoyed whirling through it in one sitting and not coming away with my ears ringing. Perhaps O’Brien just gently nudged the levels down a tad, but the various instruments sound clearer and a little more spacious in the overall mix.
As for the actual music, it’s an interesting mix of Mastodon’s styles spanning their earlier bruising origins, their evolution into something proggier, and onwards to the more streamlined approach of the last couple of albums. It’s not a full-on return to the prog of Crack The Skye, but the prog quotient has definitely been upped for this album. Perhaps not in the length of the songs apart from the epic closer Jaguar God, but prog fans will certainly enjoy the way many of the other songs have been composed and arranged.
The opening brace of tracks, Sultan, Show Yourself and Precious Stones are pretty much what you’d expect of ‘modern Mastodon’, shorter and catchy as hell, and do a good job of raising the pulse and getting the listener settled in to the overall sound and feel of the album. For a taster of this aspect of the album, try the track Show Yourself:
The band still have their sense of humour intact, even if the album’s subject material is based on less happy experiences. The individual members have each recounted how this album was conceived in the aftermath of several family illnesses, including bereavement, and that this would be a theme running through the album. But for the life of me, you’d be hard pressed to spot any obvious connections.
I’m sure if you dig deeper into the lyrics then you might find more subtle references, but the album as a whole sounds like business as usual for Mastodon, if perhaps a little less blunt force trauma and a little more textured with the use of synths to quietly colour in the background – they even manage a Moog solo on Clan Destiny – while the guitars reassuringly trample everything else underfoot.
However, there is one development that stands out for me, and that’s the vocals. If you listen to the early stuff, the vocals are pretty much just gruff barking and roaring, but as the band have grown so has their singing confidence, with drummer Dailor taking the lead on more songs, and his cleaner higher range bringing welcome melody to the vocals and an interesting contrast to the mid-range nasal tones of guitarist Brent Hinds, and the lower gruffer tones of bassist Troy Sanders. This gives the band a lot to play around with, and the three-way contrast works really well on this album.
When you listen to songs like Steambreather and Ancient Kingdom, using each singer for a separate verse or chorus, or having them sing together in multiple combinations at peak points within the song, it brings something new to Mastodon’s music.
There’s also been a lot of talk about the album’s storyline concept, but my cursory glance at the lyrics along the way didn’t readily reveal the storyline to me. Still, when you listen to the album in one go, the you can tell that the running order has been carefully sequenced to allow each one it’s space, whether as a contrast or a compliment to the song coming before and after it.
Emperor Of Sand feels like a complete deal, rather than just a collection of songs thrown together, and fans of each period of the band should find something to enjoy within, as the music reflects and acknowledges the band’s legacy so far. And, as much as Crack The Skye will still remain my favourite album, Emperor Of Sand has become the album that best introduces Mastodon to those who haven’t heard them yet!