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Mastodon Emperor Of Sand

2017 Reprise Records

Striking back at the emperor.

Mastodon - Emperor Of Sand

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For now at least, it’s an unfortunate reality that nearly everyone’s life will one day be impacted by cancer. In Mastodon‘s case, the disease took its toll on family and loved ones of various members of the band nearly all at once, spelling out the dark days that led to the creation of this seventh full-length album, “Emperor Of Sand“.

Once again heading back to the conceptual album format after some time away, the band gave the aforementioned disease an elaborate mythical back story, essentially personifying it as the evil desert dwelling specter that appears on the album’s cover art. With the core topic having had such a profound effect on the band’s roster, it’s not a stretch to say that “Emperor Of Sand” feels like Mastodon‘s most personal album to date.

It’s very much a revealing listen that finds the group expressing themselves via more elements of traditional songwriting and bigger melodies. Nowhere else is this more evident than the proverbial ugly duckling track, “Show Yourself“, which is about as close as the band have come to writing an accessible ‘rock n’ roll’ song. The large choruses and twisting solo that ensue on its propulsive follow-up, “Precious Stones“, also appeal to a similar mindset—though the oft-serpentine track is cloaked in a far more customary ‘Mastodon‘ foil.

While “Show Yourself” and the bell-laden moments of the mournful sounding “Roots Remain“—which ends with an elegiac piano part—are the sharpest turns the band take here, neither truly see the outfit leave their comfort zone for extended periods of time. “Steambreather” is an immediate standout with an ominous pendulum like swing of smoky guitar work. It sports an uncharacteristically elaborate ambiance which the band repeatedly escape via a reflective, melodic chorus and galloping percussion.

Other notable moments include the middle of “Clandestiny“, which at one point finds the band sightseeing in a spacey synth-crafted galaxy of sound, complete with a robotic spoken word interlude (think “Circle Of Cysquatch“.) As bizarre as it sounds on paper, it snugly fits as the precursor to the fever dream soloing and soaring vocal harmonies that soon follow.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Mastodon album without a guest turn from NeurosisScott Kelly, who makes his voice heard on “Scorpion Breath“—a particularly lively cut that finds his fiery bellows oozing menace. As a whole, “Emperor Of Sand” is a sonic step up for the group. It incorporates some bold new elements and drastically ups the density of their aural atmosphere tenfold, even adding some new tricks to the band’s arsenal. But conversely it also finds them simplifying their songwriting to a degree.

With such a heavy topic encapsulating the album, there’s a portion throughout the latter half of the record where it’s a bit tough to not get bogged down in the melancholic doldrums. One issue that some may also have with the album is the overall familiarity it sports. While it is adventurous, there are a handful of parts that find the group gnawing on some of their past works.

None truly feel like a direct callback, but certain progressions and parts can feel like vague shadows of the past. Of course such a quality also speaks to the band’s own adroitness at carving out their own niche sound. While an overall dynamic experience, the album at large does tend to tread a similar path, which can be a bit suffocating after a few of the more analogous tracks.

That said, “Emperor Of Sand” is Mastodon at their most vulnerable yet. It’s not an outright downer of a record, but the gravitas it possesses certainly weighs heavy on the soul. It’s not a listening experience that readily lends itself to a bright sunny day or kicking loose, but it could be indispensable as a spiritual crutch for life’s weightier moments.

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