There’s a question that always seems to crawl its way back into my head any time an artist that’s known for being an innovator releases an album. The question is “If an artist has already created a unique sound for themselves, how much should you expect them to innovate further from that?” The question usually comes up with a band like Tool, especially given the developmental purgatory their new album has been stuck for the past five years or so. There isn’t really another band that sounds quite like Tool, so is it sufficient for them to make “just another Tool album”, even if there isn’t another band that is doing what they’re doing the way they do it?
Mastodon are a band that consistently evolved for the first twelve or so years of their existence as a musical force. From the spazzy tech sludge of their debut Remission to the acid trip psychedelic space-time odyssey that was 2009’s Crack The Skye, they never really made an album that had much in common with the one that came before it. But that sort of changed with 2014’s Once More ‘Round The Sun, an album that sort of followed the same overall style as the preceding album The Hunter. While I still enjoyed a lot of the songs on the album, it didn’t have much of that “wow factor” that characterized every release of theirs up to that point. Those two albums marked a definite change in approach from their earlier material. There wasn’t any of the (in)famous storylines that, while totally bonkers, really held the early albums together in a way that made them great to listen to as a whole.
That point brings me to their newest opus, Emperor Of Sand. With this release I feel that, while the band are looking backward more than forward, they are bringing a lot of what they’ve learned over their last two releases back with them to put a new spin on an older sound. What sound is that, specifically? This album shares a lot of sonic similarity with Crack The Skye, and by that I mean that Emperor Of Sand is a total headfuck. This is just as if not more trippy than Crack The Skye, and that’s really saying something.
The concept of this album revolves a man exiled into the desert and his point of view and hallucinations as he struggles against the elements. The band have stated that the concept is an overarching metaphor for the process of going through cancer treatment, and I think this plays into why I think Mastodon’s concept albums are generally their strongest overall. The band throw so many ideas at the wall that they need a something to focus their creativity, and even as out-there as their storylines can get (Blood Mountain has an entire song dedicated to the main character confronting a one-eyed psychic Yeti), it’s all bound in an emotional core that allows the album as a whole to function as more than the sum of its individual songs.
That’s not to say that Emperor Of Sand doesn’t have songs that are great on their own. To me, “Steambreather” is the one as far as bangers go. It has all these proggy tangents and trippy atmospheric instrumental textures, but it all builds to a massive chorus where Troy Sanders and Brann Dailor harmonize in a way that is absolutely magical. This is what I mean when I say that the band are bringing some of their newer techniques to a sound they’ve done before. It’s the full realization of all the lessons they’ve learned in writing melodic hooks on the last couple of records.
But, to me, the record is at its best when it’s at its most mind-bending. There’s a part stuck in the middle of “Clandestiny” where everything breaks down to a synth-driven spacey instrumental section backed by chimes and robot vocoder lines. It sort of comes out of nowhere, but it actually makes total sense in the context of the song and is totally awesome. “Jaguar God”, maybe my favorite track on the album, is basically the latest in a long line of epic prog-infused freakazoid album closers that these guys love to throw at us. Without spoiling some of the coolest moments, it goes through at least five major turns and encapsulates just about everything in the Mastodon playbook, from jerky technical metal to serene psychedelia, all capped off with a searing guitar solo from Brent Hinds.
I must be honest, I was a bit worried about how this album was going to turn out. The first two tracks released, while enjoyable, didn’t tell me much about the direction the band were gonna take. I felt like it would be disastrous if they made something too similar to The Hunter and Once More ‘Round The Sun; they needed to change things up if they wanted to stay vital. But as it turns out, I absolutely love Emperor Of Sand. It’s so expansive and immersive, and that’s exactly the thing that made me fall in love with this band in the first place. They hit that perfect balance of progressive rock ambition and good old fashioned heavy metal stomp. There’s a line on “Steambreather” where Brann Dailor sings “Climbing inside the cosmic eye”. That phrase is Mastodon to me. I know last week I said it was gonna be hard for any album to top Eternity, In Your Arms as my album of the year. Well Mastodon have just swatted Creeper out of the sky for that top spot.