Before I delve into my personal views on Mastodon’s newest concept album, “Emperor of Sand,” this quote from a very recent interview that Mastodon did with Noisey seems fitting as a prelude to this VantaBlog review. In the Noisey interview, guitarist Bill Kelliher said:
“Our fucking fans are nuts. They pick apart every fucking note, every fucking word, who’s singing what, why this song doesn’t sound like the last song, why this song sucks because it’s different. I’m always trying to come up with riffs and ideas and songs to impress Troy, Brent, or Brann. I’m not trying to do to it to impress Joe Blow on Facebook. I don’t give a shit. That’s what keeps us going. It’s funny when I read these comments on the internet of people saying we sold out by playing songs like “Show Yourself.” Who the fuck are you? What do you mean we sold out? I’ll play whatever music I want to play! I’ll put out a goddamn pop record if I want to. I don’t have to answer to anybody but my bandmates… and my wife.”
While Mastodon records have been leaning a variety of directions ever since the bands very first demos, and maybe their first full-length, “Remission,” their more recent recordings have been often cited/dubbed as being “poppy” or “poppier” for lack of a better term. That doesn’t mean, however, that the songs fit neatly into formulaic pop song boxes, nor will much of their material be found on modern pop-rock radio alongside the likes of Nickelback or Staind. – Perhaps an unlikely feature on an edgier station that may feature the likes of System of A Down, but Mastodon certainly do not dominate modern rock radio like Korn or Limp Bizkit during the mid-to-late-1990s.
Every since the band made “Blood Mountain” and was nominated for their first Grammy award for Best Metal/Hard Rock Performance for “Colony of Birchmen,” every Mastodon record has had a lead single. Admittedly, every single has been the most listener-friendly track on each respective album. While the most recent two or three records’ singles have been the most radio-ready songs of the band’s catalog, the songs fit the unique vibe of each album (as each album does have its very own themes and vibe/sound each executed in a purposeful manner) and are still distinctly, and unmistakably, Mastodon.
In other interviews featuring Mastodon band members, they discuss how they write songs and the process of becoming better songwriters, along with evolving into more well-rounded musicians. A look at Mastodon’s first two records reveals songs that are distinctly heavier and linear with very few, if any, repetitive themes or choruses. These first few albums were also written by one or two band members at the helm, and usually one member harnessing all vocal duties (commonly bassist Trey Sanders). Nowadays, the band takes a completely different approach to its songwriting; allowing all band members to contribute in a truly collaborative writing process, and it shows. This evolving process is something that the band has been quite vocal about in myriads of interviews they’ve done throughout the past several album cycles. So while some may ignorantly generalize Mastodon’s recent albums as being more “poppy,” “radio-” or “listener-friendly,” etc. a delve into the band’s writing approach, processes, mindset, desires, and goals reveals that these changes are simply a function of these very conscience, yet natural evolutionary aspects of a band trying to be the best band that they can be in a plethora of different ways; all of which serve the greater good – the album, the song, and the individual efforts put forth to make these things happen.
“Emperor of Sand,” in my opinion, is Mastodon’s best work since 2009’s highly regarded, yet mind-blower of a concept album, “Crack the Skye” – arguably Mastodon’s most prog-influenced, and complexly themed, album to date (seriously read the story behind the album’s themes in this Wikipedia article). “Emperor” marries the two sides of Mastodon in a way that makes the band more appealing: the song-driven side that’s been evolving since the bands inception, but most notably over the course of the bands past few albums; and the progressive behemoth that’s been harnessed in the band’s early years that’s been constantly tamed, and refined during recent years.
From a musician’s standpoint, there are some blistering instrument-performance portions that are going crazy underneath pristine vocals; including subtly shifting rhythms, spider-finger riffing, and blazing solos that may go unnoticed by the casual listener who may often only recognizes a great song. So, it’s certainly not a situation in which Mastodon is attempting to appeal to pop-rock-radio in any way, shape, nor form. The above quote from Kelliher, that leads off this review, best sums up that the band really answers to no one except each other, and that radio play is the furthest thing from their mind(s) when writing a songs that fit within the concept of any given album. Considering that the band’s initial recording contract was with extreme metal underground mainstay label ,Relapse Records, it’s hard to believe that Relapse execs were pushing for a lead single to show off at MTV Music Awards (this is simply a guess; what does this writer know?). The misconception of this particular band “trying” to be radio-friendly is simply a result of their desire to become better writers, players, musicians, and band members.
The songs on “Emperor of Sand “fluidly move from one to the next, and the overall song arrangement is quintessential to the album’s feel. It kicks off with a simple cymbal-laden intro that delivers the desired desert vibe (a staple recurring theme throughout the record) in a smooth and subtle manner before kicking into traditional Mastodon sludge-rock on “Sultans Curse.” The first few songs flow well into one another and continue to further develop and solidify the desert wanderer theme quite well through instrumentation and lyrics delivered in the freshly developed, and ever-evolving triple-vocal assault that has been a mainstay since “Skye.” As evident on the latest effort, the more these vocalists write and sing together the more cohesive they become with each vocalist delivering their part(s) in their own uniquely striking style. Even more impressive are the stacked vocal harmonies that really take a front seat on this album more than ever before. While Mastodon’s first works really focused on the elements: fire (“Remission) water (“Leviathan“), earth (“Blood Mountain”) and aether (“Crack the Skye”), I was expecting Emperor to focus on air (the only element around which a Mastodon album has yet to be based) – possibly focusing on the themes of wind/sand/desert/erosion, etc.
Emperor, however, has a very different set of themes that are evident through paying close attention to the lyrics which tell a story of an unfortunate soul who has been forced to wander the desert for all of eternity as a punishment for some unnamed slight against some kind of high power/desert ruler – a metaphor for cancer and death that has recently effected many individuals close to the actual band members in recent years between records.
The album ends on quite the heavy note when guest vocalists Scott Kelly (of Neurosis fame), and Mike Keneally (of Frank Zappa fame, among other projects) step in for album closers: “Scorpion Breath,” and “Jaguar God,” respectively. While these two tracks are among the album’s heaviest, and “Jaguar” is the album’s longest cut, at just over seven minutes, they fit the overall vibe of the album, ad to its charm, and work great as a way to perk up listener ear drums as the album ends with a bang.
Whether one is experiencing Mastodon’s heavy metal-sludge-stoner rock cross over sounds for the first time through Emperor of Sand, or the work is being experienced through the ears of veteran listeners well versed in the previous works of the world’s most hard working, down-to-earth metal band, it’s a great listen. Sure, it may take veterans a few spins before they really get what the band is going for, as it is easy to write off as all of the things the review previously described after a half-hearted attempt at this newest Mastodon product, but once one really takes time to let these songs steep in one’s mind, ears, and soul for a while “Emperor of Sand” delivers the best work since the ever-so-prog “Crack the Skye.” As the band continues to put in obvious work individually, through other projects, and with one another, it leaves listeners excited at what the band has in store for future recordings, as each release takes Mastodon fans (those willing to take the ride, at least) on a journey to distant fictional worlds that no one – fan or casual listener – could have ever predicted. Don’t let the shiny production fool you, Mastodon are the same unwavering, heavy metal sludge machine they’ve always been it just takes a little more patience to uncover it – and isn’t that how any real work of aural art should be? – Continually delivering new and unnoticed subtleties upon each subsequent listen?