Mastodon | Emperor of Sand
Mastodon are no strangers to concept albums. ‘Leviathan’, their breakthrough, is a thunderous, metal retelling of ‘Moby Dick’. ‘Blood Mountain’, its follow-up, recounts the quest for a crystal skull punctuated by encounters with tree-men and a psychic one-eyed sasquatch. Their crowning glory, 2009’s ‘Crack The Skye’, deals with an astral-travelling paraplegic who reaches outer space, flies too close to the sun, burns off the golden umbilical cord attached to his solar plexus, is sucked through a wormhole into the spirit world, possesses Rasputin and usurps the Russian czar before escaping through the crack in the sky and running into the devil.
Mastodon are no (longer) strangers to brevity and focus. In the ensuing years, working with producers like Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Deftones, The Hold Steady) and the guy who did Ed Sheeran’s ‘Galway Girl’ has taught them that songs can be so much more than a series of technical riffs, incomprehensible time changes, and blistering solos all performed with absolute precision. Need proof? ‘Curl Of The Burl’ and ‘High Road’ are two of the decade’s finest hard rock singles.
Now, almost 10 years since their last epic narrative LP, Mastodon return with the myth of a man trying to stay alive in the desert following a death sentence from the Emperor of Sand, the Grim Reaper sultan on the album cover. Initially demoed by guitarist Bill Kelliher and drummer Brann Dailor while their mothers were both battling cancer, the disease looms large over the album. It’s not the first time the band have dealt with issues of mortality – ‘Crack The Skye’ was tangentially about the suicide of Dailor’s sister; ‘The Hunter’ was named after guitarist Brent Hinds’ brother died in a hunting accident – but never so articulately or with such emotional heft.
That’s down to the musical dexterity – channelling Queens of the Stone Age, ‘Show Yourself’ is their most direct knock-out punch yet; ‘Steambreather’ effortlessly fuses prog and stoner rock (“Don’t waste your time” chant the hypnotic backing vocals); ‘Scorpion Breath’ is three minutes of skull-rattling intensity; ‘Ancient Kingdom’ throws down the noodliest solo since Eddie van Halen strapped on his Frankenstrat; and the majestic, shapeshifting ‘Jaguar Breath’ adds acoustic guitar, piano, and sensitivity to the Mastodon sound – and vocals that are easily the finest of Mastodon’s career.
Never is that more apparent than on seismic centrepiece ‘Roots Remain’. As the pile-driving verses and soaring choruses (“Reach the sky”) become a musical trance, Dailor sings with a beauty that matches the sublime lyrics “And all I have come to gain/ Will remain with me until the better end/ And when you’re sitting next to me/ Remember sitting in the sun and dancing in the rain/ The end is not the end, you see/ It’s just a recognition of a memory”. It’s a performance of extreme restraint and tenderness, only reinforced by the blistering guitar heroics that drive home an anthem they’ll struggle to top.
Following up ‘Emperor of Sand’, now the pinnacle of the Mastodon catalogue, will be even more difficult, but the band have faced down greater challenges – death, the inescapable passage of time – and always come up victorious.