An album, like any piece of artwork, exists in an indefinite, ephemeral space. It exists as unquestionably connected to those who made it and the place and time of its making, and also able to be viewed and judged in isolation, standing for itself, timeless. Emperor Of Sand, the seventh studio album from Georgia based prog-sludge titans Mastodon, is one such record. If viewed in isolation, removing any of the events that influenced the band whilst recording it, it is a very different beast.
Opener `Sultan`s Curse` comes in gently with tapping, echoing chimes, before slamming hard into that familiar Mastodonian galloping riff. Through blasts of Brann Dailor`s rapid, cascading drum fills we fall into a decent groove that`s tied together by Brent Hind`s easy, drawling vocals. We take another turn into an airy, lush prog inspired section. Brann Dailor`s vocals soar upwards, and the spacey vibes make this seem like a riff that could have been cut from 2009`s Crack The Skye. A screaming dual guitar rises over the driving rush, and the track draws to a close.
There are some issues with `Sultan`s Curse`, and as the album progresses it becomes clear that these are issues with `Emperor Of Sand` in general. The songs construction is a little template, leaning on the verse/chorus/verse format that`s a world away from Mastodon`s earlier compositions. Whilst the guitar solos exemplify the bands` musical talents, they seem shoehorned in, rarely gelling with the rest of the tracks they pepper liberally throughout the record. Transitions as a whole seem somewhat forced and occasionally awkward, ideas failing to link or flow effectively.
`Show Yourself` drips with ubpeat, pop-rock hooks and rhythms, almost like an attempt by the Foo Fighters to cover early Queens Of The Stone Age. It`s driving and infectious, but even when it takes a slightly darker turn with a tapping, sleazy solo it doesn`t quite cut through the cheese engendered by the frantic tambourine work. The mean, angular, lumbering riff of `Precious Stones` gives a faint hope of a return to `old school` heavy Mastodon, but this is quickly torn down by Brent`s hooky vocal line and a messy closeout that sounds like a Metallica B-Side. We also see the first real instance of the band`s penchant for nauseatingly obvious, cliche lyrics - whenTroy sighs "Don`t waste your time/don`t let it slip away from you" it`s difficult to avoid a physical cringe.
`Steambreather` slides in with a flatulent synth loop before kicking off a stalking, predatory riff that coils over itself. Brann`s vocal line suits it well, but again the `don`s use of extra percussion (shakers, tambourines etc) is far too obvious, and once you notice it it is impossible to ignore. The fact it appears on almost every song of the record is another thorn in the paw, and again the immateur lyrics raise their head with "I wonder where I stand/I`m afraid of myself". Clockwork like acoustic jangling and wavering synths usher in one of the records stronger tracks, `Roots Remain` (or `Eons` if you have the vinyl, for some reason). We`re swept away on the back of a racing drive, before a bright chorus ascends. Brann’s vocals are actually very good here, soaring and infectiously positive, even if the lyrics are a touch trite. But when the track falls awkward back onto the verse riff, it’s like jamming together two jigsaw pieces that weren’t supposed to fit.
‘Word To The Wise’ cascades in on some frantic snare rolling, but Troy’s smoky, almost whispered croon going on about the “diamond in the wishing well” and some sub-Tolkein fantasy bullshit overpowers the layered guitars and hooky bass groove. ‘Ancient Kingdom’ is a template Mastodon song to the point of even seeming to copy other songs on this record, let alone throughout their complete discography. Plus, rhyming ‘loud’ and ‘allowed’ is a song writing sin punishable by being forced to listen to Professor Green rhyme ‘Stella’ and ‘Fella’
‘Clandestiny’ (yes, that tile really did make it onto the final cut of the album) features the heaviest, ballsiest riff thus far, broken up by guitar daggering and trilling tremolo. Unfortunately the forced ‘epic’ chorus drive detracts, as do the conspicuous moments of extra percussion and slightly off, 80’s sci-fi B movie theramin. ‘Andromeda’ drones in with a slightly awkward, atonal riff that sounds as if it’s being played drunk. The seemingly ever present bad lyrics are there (“time calls to me from future and from past”) as are the shakers and tambourines, and when the big final drive kicks in, powered by frantic double bass pedal work, even Kevin Sharp’s screeched vocals can’t give the track (or the album) the metal cred it so sorely lacks.
Urgency is a word that describes ‘Scorpion Breath’, as it runs hard and breathlessly, showing flashes of old-school Mastodon. That is until the cheesy organ keys jar in like your Dad’s prog mix suddenly came on. Even Scott Kelly’s vocals seem misplaced, and the band have employed them on so many records you’d assume they could integrate them perfectly by now. ‘Jaguar God’ is gentle and airy, arguably Mastodon’s version of ‘Nothing Else Matters’. Brann’s jazzy drums underpin Brent’s wearied, dreamlike and frankly bored sounding vocals. Instrumental layers build, moving through bluesy, chicken pickin’ guitar lines, swooshing noise, hard rock drives, noodly, waltzing solos and a slow close out into cymbal shimmers and weird laughter. It’s bloated, overly long, and takes as many dead ends as it does risks.
For long term fans it will be yet another frustrating example of watching a band slide into mediocrity writing boozy festival sing along anthems.
There’s a line in ‘Jaguar God’ that summarises the album nicely. Troy barks “It’s right in front of me/your malignancy”. This is an album that deals with intense personal struggle, with cancer and death, illness and strife. As such, it’s mean spirited and leaves one slightly guilty to malign the record. It’s the album the band needed to make as people to get through difficult times. They’ve done it before, with The Hunter and with Crack The Skye. The differences are, however, in the presentation. ‘It’s right in front of me/your malignancy” is bang on the nose. It’s a very obvious point to make. Considering this is the band who previously tackled the suicide of a family member with an album about astral projection and Russian religious sects, to be as up front with your messages as “memories of loved ones are passing me by” is surprising.
Maybe they’ve grown up, surpassed the use of veils and metaphors? This is, however, if we look at the album connected to where and when and who it was written by. If we take it as a piece of art, to be judged divorced from progeny, it paints a different picture. The only progression here is the bands’ continuing development of pop-metal hooks and energies, and the range and precision of their clean vocals. Otherwise, this is a record of trite riffs, by-the- numbers construction, awkward transitions, and perhaps most damning, a lack of cohesive effort. For long term fans it will be yet another frustrating example of watching a band slide into mediocrity writing boozy festival sing along anthems. Even for more recent converts, Emperor Of Sand offers little new compared to ‘second era’ Mastodon offerings like Once More Round The Sun. While it is always wrong to resist a band for their changes and progressions, it isn’t wrong to be concerned of marked drops in quality and vision. Like it or not, Emperor Of Sand simply doesn’t rule.