Mastodon have been incredibly unsettled for the past eight or so years. With albums like their debut, Remission, and its follow-up, Leviathan, the Atlanta-based four-piece were amongst the most prominent ringleaders of the rising trend of sludge metal, but remained completely separate from their peers courtesy of the epic progressive rock-inspired passages worked into their compositional style. Their first few albums packaged a classic metal aesthetic in with some technical pizzazz and a healthy dose of vintage prog, and then applied all of this to the trudging tempos and Southern-tinged sound of early sludge metal, clearly pulling from the genre’s most significant precursors, notably Melvins and Alice in Chains. The band’s fourth album, 2009’s Crack the Skye, marked a departure for Mastodon from their sludgy roots, instead pursuing an all-out progressive rock concept album on this release, with lyrics as winding and complex as the music that accompanied them. Given the pervasiveness of a progressive influence on the group’s previous projects, Crack the Skye was a highly polished endeavour for Mastodon, and certainly more successful than its successor, The Hunter. On this fifth album, the band had now decided to tone down their progressive stylings considerably and pursue a sound that seemed to be a mixture of genres that had led to the development of sludge metal in the first place, such as grunge, hard rock and plain old heavy metal. This significant stylistic shift towards a much more radio-friendly sound for Mastodon came at the same time as some of their most significant sludge metal peers, like Torche and particularly Baroness, were making similar alterations to their music. With such bands as points of comparison, The Hunter was a far cry from the most successful attempt at this more accessible approach, but Mastodon used the album’s follow-up, Once More ‘Round the Sun, to sharpen their skills with this sound. Now, on their latest album, Emperor of Sand, Mastodon seem to have reached the climax of their radio-rock aesthetic, with this record’s metal edge being rather blunt. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this in principle, but the approach to songwriting employed by the band on this album has made for a release that nears the inconspicuousness of The Hunter, clearly being more tailored for a radio audience than Mastodon’s usual fanbase. This being said, the catchiness of much of Emperor of Sand seems to sacrifice slightly less than that which was featured on The Hunter, which suffered a lack of interesting ideas and compositional chops as a result of its heightened accessibility. What’s more, in Mastodon’s usual style, Emperor of Sand fleshes out an elaborate narrative, this time following the travels of a rambling desert-dweller who faces a death sentence, with the recurring lyrical themes of suffering, survival, ruination and death apparently arising from the band member’s experiences seeing family and friends endure the torture of cancer. Whilst this concept is a strong one at its core, like the music on Emperor of Sand, its concept, too, comes across as being neutered slightly, as to preserve the accessibility of this record. Ultimately, therefore, whilst there is certainly much to be admired in the way in which Mastodon present this album, its effectiveness is not always quite so clear, with Emperor of Sand unlikely to leave a lasting impact given the extent to which it recycles musical ideas that provided the foundation for the outfit’s original sound, without significantly building on them in a definitive fashion.
With the singles released in promotion of Emperor of Sand leaving me slightly sceptical as to how Mastodon were going to progress their hard rock sound on their latest album, I was actually rather impressed upon my first listen, largely by how tidy it seemed on the surface. The punchy production across much of the album captures a distinct crispness to the band’s sound and, although its lacking when it comes to dynamics and the vocals are sometimes drowned out by the instrumentation, its bright quality brings out the best in both the guitars’ ripping leads and their sludgy chugging. This is best demonstrated by the opening cut and lead single from the album, Sultan’s Curse, which is amongst the few tracks from Emperor of Sand that could be called metal songs, not to mention it being easily the best track here and one of the better openers for recent Mastodon albums. The thunderous chugging that opens the cut maintains the ideal level of sludge for a more heavy metal-orientated Mastodon song, whilst the sweeping guitar leads preserve the melodic technicality of some of the band’s earlier material. The songwriting, too, is more reminiscent of the group’s previous output, with the track weaving through so many varying passages as to come across as a progressive metal piece, especially given the emphasis on the dynamic vocal melodies that this cut boasts. Sultan’s Curse is a track that is much stronger in the broader context of Emperor of Sand, benefiting greatly from the production that creates somewhat of a stoner/desert rock vibe across much of the record, which puts greater weight behind the tales of the desert wanderer featured in its lyrics.
Beyond Sultan’s Curse, the vast majority of the songs on Emperor of Sand utilise a more elementary hard rock formula, making use of catchy, radio-friendly riffage, grand choruses with infectious vocal melodies and the odd solo to wrap things up. As a blueprint for constructing an accessible rock song, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this, and certain tracks on the album demonstrate a largely successful realisation of this approach. The second track in the tracklisting, Show Yourself, which was also the second single released in promotion of Emperor of Sand, is one such example and, again, is a song I think benefits from the context of the rest of the record, although it most definitely suffers as a result of sounding more like Queens of the Stone Age than Mastodon. On first listen, there are no doubts as to why Show Yourself was chosen as a single, given that its vocal melody is criminally infectious, although this could certainly work against it for those who find the singing obnoxious. On the instrumental side of things, however, this song benefits from some of Brann Dailor’s most varied and inventive drumming on the record, adding a layer of technicality to an otherwise straightforward song. There are a lot of other tracks on the record, however, that are straightforward to the point of being somewhat unmemorable, often as a result of Mastodon pursuing a particular sound that doesn’t quite suit them. Roots Remain, for instance, despite being the second longest cut in the tracklisting at six and a half minutes in length, follows a pretty clear-cut structure and execution, whilst also featuring somewhat of a hodgepodge of ideas. The main riff is pretty standard as far as hard rock and heavy metal goes, whilst Dailor’s vocal performance over the chorus is in an awkward purgatory between progressive rock and pop rock, with the attempts at reaching epic heights as he aims for those high notes being slightly clumsy in execution. What’s more, the proggy bridge, complete with spacey keyboard lines, bell chimes and a chorus effect on the guitars, comes across as a rather forced attempt at retaining a progressive edge to the hard rock stylings of Emperor of Sand, ultimately sounding contrived and slightly generic. Words to the Wise, despite featuring another top-notch performance from Dailor behind the kit, suffers from similar problems, namely due to the timing changes throughout the composition that aren’t very smoothly polished and another chorus with vocal melodies that strive for the heights of a radio rock song but fall short of achieving this. Clandestiny encapsulates many of the worst things about this record, primarily in that its songwriting is incredibly rudimentary, but then Mastodon force in a really out of place keyboard solo, with some futuristic, robotic vocal snippets to boot, that practically embodies the prog rock stereotype. Ultimately, much of Emperor of Sand continues Mastodon’s trend of not settling within one sound, instead constantly hopping between several styles, and occasionally attempting to awkwardly fuse them, which seldom yields exceptional results, instead often being rather elementary in its execution.
Overall, Emperor of Sand could have its pros and cons separated rather neatly. For the most part, the production reaches, and I would argue exceeds, the bar set on previous Mastodon albums; the performances are often compelling, and I cannot stress enough how incredible Dailor’s drumming is on most of the record; at the best of times, such as on Sultan’s Curse and Steambreather, the vocal melodies are exceptionally good, with the cohesion between the three lead vocalists being impressively refined; and, generally speaking, this album maintains a definitive aesthetic that makes its best moments all the more enjoyable. However, the drawbacks are rather significant, with the band’s pursuit of various genres under the rock and metal umbrella being often superficial and occasionally clumsy, especially when the group attempts to work them into a more palatable final product. Moreover, the vocal performances that strive for an arena rock degree of grandeur are sometimes lacking and unpolished, whilst the extent to which the band pulls from other artists, like Alice in Chains, Neurosis and Queens of the Stone Age, results in some tracks barely retaining any air of Mastodon’s usual pervasive identity. All this considered, therefore, Emperor of Sand is another mixed release for Mastodon that is in certain regards a progression and in other ways a regression from their last couple of albums, but this isn’t surprising given how unsettled they have been with their constant hopping between genres. As such, it’s difficult to suggest surefire ways in which the band could improve, as they have been so fickle in recent years that many proposals could prove redundant when applied to the stylistic shift that may come with their next project. Overall, it would require a lot more focus than the band has demonstrated on their most recent albums to see the ideas that they are pursuing properly come to fruition, and, until Mastodon find this balance they desperately need, they are likely to continue releasing material that, like Emperor of Sand, teeters between successful and unsuccessful ideas.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10