Review: Mastodon – Emperor of Sand

No Mastodon album will ever be as good as the first Mastodon album that you heard. The introduction to their greatness will leave you gasping for air and pining for more. That said, their 2009 Crack The Skye has always had a place in my record collection because it is, quite simply, some amazing prog that I go to time and again.

So, I was really excited to hear that the new album, Emperor of Sand, recorded at The Quarry Recording Studio in Kennesaw, Georgia, would be product by Brendan O’Brien – the same guy they collaborated with on Crack the Skye. They also have Scott Kelly from Neurosis on some of the vocals, he’s been on every album they’ve done.

The album is about death and survival and stands as a concept album about a guy wandering a desert after a death sentence. Brann Dailor sez:

“A Sultan in the desert hands down a death sentence to this guy. He’s running from that. He gets lost, and the sun is zapping all of his energy akin to radiation. So, he’s trying to telepathically communicate with these African and Native American tribes to get rain to pour down and kill it.”

The theme of death is not unusual for Mastodon, but has an acute personal angle – the band were reflecting on their mortality given some of the experiences of the band members on finding out family and friends were diagnosed with cancer and this comes across.

I’ve listened to each of the singles numerous times and though they weren’t great – this left me worried about the actual album. “Sultans Curse”, which was released on Jan 27, starts really well, but seems to be a cookie-cutter Mastodon track, not anything like Crack the Skye. It’s good, got some nice melodic breakdowns, but it “sounds like Mastodon” if you know what I mean? The second album track “Show Yourself”, released on Feb 3, is better, but some standard rock key changes, although the vocal melodies are really nice. The third single, “Andromeda”, released on March 7 and the 9th track on the album made me feel much better about the coming full release, some exceptional structure to the music and some lovely vocals. It’s got a bit of a Pink Floyd feel, if Floyd had crashing guitars and giant beards.

However, the singles as part of this album actually really work. There are some really tasty parts here, but the standout tracks for me are “Roots Remain”, which is just amazing, really proggy and as close to Crack the Skye as you’ll get on Emperor of Sand – it’s many layers and directions make for a compelling listen. “Clandestiny” which has several cool time changes and some brilliant, but strange distorted vocals and spacey sounding effects in the middle and “Jaguar God” the last track on the album and the epitome of ‘saving the best until last’, it starts with some twangly acoustic and a roll of drums and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a ballad, but no, it just starts with sad sounding vocals (”I’m no good…”), but around two minutes, it starts to pick up and winds itself in so many knots I nearly squealed with delight. This is the kind of music I really hope Mastodon make in the future, it’s full of textures, patterns and sections which make you want to listen hard. 10/10.

In conclusion, this is not Crack the Skye (or Leviathon, which is where I started), but it is a great Mastodon record that deserves a few listens to really get the most out of it. I’m expecting that more listens will uncover more things I’ve missed, that’s not to say it isn’t an accessible record (the three singles prove that) but that it’s more than the sum of it’s parts.

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