Thoughts on Mastodon and Their New Album Emperor of Sand

Emperor of sand cover.jpg

I first got into Mastodon around 2006, when they were touring for their album Leviathan.  I believe it was a mention by Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament in Rolling Stone that made me check them out.  I heard the punishing “Blood and Thunder” and was instantly intrigued. They appealed to the Metallica loving side of my music fandom. I didn’t get into all of their songs (some of the vocals were what some people call Cookie Monster growling) but the intricate and heavy guitar work and insane drumming reeled me in immediately.

Their next album Blood Mountain was a definite step up, just by sheer force and improved songwriting. It is still very heavy and has aggressive vocals, but they also injected more melody in spots.  I also found it interesting that they like to base their albums around an element . Leviathan was water and Blood Mountain was earth.  They were earning a reputation of what some people call smart metal-lyrics that were based around fantasy and the supernatural and music that was distinct and original while still being heavy.

Crack the Skye was next, and was inspired by the suicide of drummer Brann Dailor’s sister when he was a teenager. Another concept album, it features less pure metal and more hard rock/psychedelic elements, with even less emphasis on aggressive vocals and more melodic singing. Their secret weapon was Dailor singing more, adding another layer to their music. This was the first tour I saw them live for and they did not disappoint-they played the whole album start to finish, and then some songs from other albums. They were dynamic and spot on, as expected.

Their next 2 albums, The Hunter and Once More Round the Sun, saw them straying from a concept, and perhaps coincidentally, they are my two least favorite albums of theirs. There were still great songs (in particular “Curl of the Burl”, “Dry Bone Valley”, and “High Road”), but the albums as a whole seemed less consistent and inspired to me.

Which is why I was a little skeptical about their new album Emperor of Sand, but I was vastly mistaken-I think this might be their best album as a whole.  There is not one song on it that I would consider weak.  They have continued to refine their singing and for the most part it is all melodic, but they do touch on more aggressive vocals in spots. The music is less psychedelic and more hard rock/heavy metal, with what might be considered proggy sections here and there.  What is so impressive is the intricacy of their songs-multiple vocal harmonies, multiple singers (Dailor, bassist Troy Sanders, and lead guitarist Brent Hinds take turns singing lead), and various bridges/outros make it hard to wrap my brain around just how they constructed 11 songs with so many parts.  The album is centered around the desert, with a story of a man cursed to roam it; it’s all a metaphor for cancer, which two band members were directly affected by in the last few years.

One of my favorite songs on the album is “Roots Remain”. It begins with a pummeling rhythm before seguing into a soaring chorus courtesy of Dailor.  After moving into a dreamy bridge/middle section, it finishes with an epic guitar solo and piano outro. It truly is a tour de force. What is also great is that they did go back to some of the harder edges of their earlier work.  “Andromeda” and “Scorpion Breath” in particular have sinister riffs, with “Andromeda” even throwing in a section of double bass drum.    “Scorpion Breath” veers from tribal drumming to racing riffs and beats, and the throttling end sounds like something that would have fit right in on Blood Mountain.

The last thing I really appreciate about them is that they know how to write albums.  That is something that I still enjoy-when a band can create a whole song cycle that is unified and flows from one song to the next.  I love when I can just put an album on and listen to it from start to finish instead of cherry picking songs.

I definitely hope to catch them live for a 3rd time when they come to Atlanta (speaking of Atlanta, they are based here. So that’s yet another reason to like them. I’m pretty sure I saw rhythm guitarist Bill Kelliher as I was leaving a Soundgarden concert a few years ago).

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