Monday, 17 April 2017

ALBUM REVIEW: Mastodon - "Emperor of Sand"

By: Richard Maw

Album Type: Full Length
Date Released: 31/03/2017
Label: Reprise Records


“this is the best album in a long while from the band, it is accessible without straying that far from the band's template and still finds the band in a modern class of one. Time will reveal just how good this record is, but my feeling is that this one will stand the test of time.”


“Emperor of Sand” CD//DD//LP track listing:

01. Sultan's Curse
02. Show Yourself
03. Precious Stones
04. Steambreather
05. Roots Remain
06. Word To The Wise
07. Ancient Kingdom
08. Clandestiny
09. Andromeda
10. Scorpion Breath
11. Jaguar God

The Review:

Mastodon, over the course of their first four albums, were on the cusp of immortal metal greatness. “Remission” remains their high point for fans of their heavier work. “Leviathan” is generally regarded as classic. “Blood Mountain” is to “Leviathan” what Motorhead's  “Bomber” was to “Overkill”. “Crack The Skye” was an immense work- but a little too smooth for some tastes. After that, things got a little... less interesting. I've always found “The Hunter” to be underwhelming and “Once More 'Round The Sun” was good, but not great- and, time has shown, perhaps a little too safe and friendly- certainly for me, at any rate.

At the time of “OMRTS”, I pondered whether the record would ascend to greatness- sadly, for me, it did not. This time around, Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, AC/DC et al) returns as producer and the band visit personal loss as an inspirational wellspring again. Naturally, there is a story line here- rain, Arabia, telepathy... all very Mastodon. I'll leave you to figure it all out.

If the story and concept and even genesis of the album is very Mastodon, is the music?! “Sultan's Curse” certainly is- it's a great opener, angular riffing, off kilter drums- it has the band being noisy bastards again- great! From there, though, things are not exactly what you may expect. Truthfully, “Show Yourself” is closer to Queens of The Stone Age than anything on “Remission”. The vocals are clean, the rhythms surprisingly straightforward. Make no mistake, it's a great song, but...

“Precious Stones” is more like it; Brann Dailor is very busy behind the kit, the vocals soar, there are changes aplenty and all that makes for a winning track. The listener will become aware here that the record is NOT going to rely on harsh vocals. Really, that is a word of warning to anyone who is expecting a wholesale return to the band's past. Production wise, there is nothing to fault here: the sound is big, very well balanced and superbly mixed. You can hear absolutely everything and the album sounds as massive as the band's name implies.

It's a focused listen too; only the closer strays into epic length territory, with most other tracks in that four to six minute bracket. Looking at all these factors- producer, song lengths, vocal delivery- it is an easy assumption to make that this is an album perhaps akin to Metallica's fifth album- edges smoothed out, hooks silky rather than spiky. However, that may also be doing a disservice to the record and the band.

“Emperor of Sand” is very much a Mastodon record. It's quirky, unpredictable and still technically very proficient and even progressive. The vocals are a clear nod to more mainstream designs- and showcase the band's best vocal work to date in respect of clean singing. The drums are still extremely busy, the guitar work is still very much complex and lead heavy. Tracks such as “Steambreather” have iron-clad riffs at their core. Similarly, “Roots Remain” is heavy and vocal heavy in equal measure with some inspired riffage to boot.

“Word To The Wise” is weighty and catchy and recognisable, immediately, as Mastodon. The band have always had a unique sound (and bands that do tend to rise above the rest) and that sound is very much present and correct. There are even throwback type tracks to previous records. “Ancient Kingdom” would fit in on “Crack The Skye” perfectly, but there is nothing as extreme as “March of The Fire Ants” here, alas.

Once across the halfway point of the record, on first listen, I realised that Mastodon still do sound very much like themselves and also that “Emperor of Sand” is nowhere near as much of a dynamic shift in sound as was “The Black Album”. The best comparison I can make here is to band's produced by Mutt Lange: the change from before and after is clear, but the band is still recognisable. I am talking “Powerage” to “Highway to Hell”, “On Through The Night” to “High and Dry” (yes, I realise that AC/DC and Def Leppard are very strange comparative examples). To put things in direct terms, tracks like “Clandestiny” are way beyond what anyone would think of as mainstream rock or metal, but they are still oddly listenable and hooky and sound fantastic.

Mastodon is still Mastodon, they are just not the band in your back pocket anymore. The angular riffing and time feel of “Andromeda” further hammers this point home: “Pyromania”, “The Black Album”, “Back In Black”, “1987”, “Eliminator” and all other blockbusting examples of lucrative sound changes this is NOT. It's still proggy, weird and even hard to follow in places. The percussion overdubs tell a story of  considered precision, the changes and constant fills and rolls tell you that the band are still doing it their own way.

The intro to “Scorpion Breath” could be straight off “Leviathan”, as could the vocals and even the structure, it's just that the overall effect is slicker. Regardless, it's a great track and a wonderful piece of music. By the time of “Jaguar God”, I was convinced by the record and won over by the band once again, after a few years of tepid interest. Naturally, the closer is the epic track on the album and makes use of quiet/loud dynamics across the nigh on eight minute playing time. In many ways, it is three tracks in one and makes for a fantastic ending.

In summary, then, this is the best album in a long while from the band. It's streets ahead of the last two, certainly. Once again, time will tell in regards to its place in the pantheon of Mastodon's greatest albums but it pulls off a mightily impressive trick: it is accessible without straying that far from the band's template and still finds the band in a modern class of one. Time will reveal just how good this record is, but my feeling is that this one will stand the test of time. 

“Emperor of Sand” is out now


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