The name alone carries a feeling of something massive and hulking, trudging its way through the unknown slowly, yet methodically, much like the extinct creature of eons ago. That exact feeling encapsulates the existence of the heavy metal band Mastodon. The Atlanta-based quartet released their newest album “Emperor of Sand” on March 31 via Reprise Records, with the album charting at #7 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums, with 43,000 units initially sold.
“Emperor of Sand” mainly continues with the more straightforward stoner metal/hard rock approach Mastodon started experimenting with on 2011’s “The Hunter” and really embraced on 2014’s “Once More ‘Round the Sun.” However, there is also another side of Mastodon; their harsher, heavier sludge/progressive metal days starting with their 2002 debut “Remission.” I personally prefer the more hard rock Mastodon that has evolved within the past several years. While their earlier, sludgier discography is certainly good, they seemed to have found their niche rooted within stoner metal-tinged hard rock. However, whereas “Once More ‘Round the Sun” was completely rooted in slower, more melodic hard rock, “Emperor of Sand” shows glimmers of that sludge metal sound from what some consider Mastodon’s glory era starting with “Remission” and peaking at 2009’s “Crack the Skye.”
I adored “Once More ‘Round the Sun” so much I consider it one of my favorite albums of all time, so upon hearing the opening track, “Sultan’s Curse,” it was very nice to hear that it could have come right off the previous album. Opening with some ominous chimes, the song then blasts the listener with a pounding, yet melodic, riff complemented by the soaring vocals, the duty shared among drummer Brann Dailor, bassist Troy Sanders and lead guitarist Brent Hinds. The chorus then evolves into an atmospheric, dreamy riff courtesy of Hinds and rhythm guitarist (and mustache extraordinaire) Bill Kelliher. Overall, it was a solid track that was hopefully indicative of things to come.
The next track, “Show Yourself,” caught me completely off-guard, as the instrumentals were noticeably more upbeat than “Sultan’s Curse,” to the point where I felt like I could even get up and dance to the track; at least, until the guitar solos kicked in with their own flurry of notes. This sort of dichotomy is a theme among the tracks on the album. On one hand, there are more atmospheric and slower tracks such as “Andromeda” and “Word to the Wise”; ones I expected after hearing the opening two tracks, not to mention the previous album. However, I was also pleasantly surprised to hear the heavier, classic end of Mastodon’s sound, with songs such as “Roots Remain” and especially “Jaguar God” being pounding and relentless, with rapid-fire riffs and a clockwork-tight rhythm section reminiscent of their earlier albums. For as much as I enjoyed “Once More ‘Round the Sun,” it definitely lacked in tracks with balls, if you will. While I wasn’t disappointed with the lighter overall feeling of that album, I myself was raised in thrash and death metal, so I’ve a bit of a bias towards the heavier end of the metal spectrum. With tracks such as those, the itch I had since “Once More” was scratched with “Emperor of Sand.”
In the end, “Emperor of Sand” may just be the quintessential Mastodon album. While an argument over the best Mastodon album has no definitive answer, “Emperor of Sand” is certainly the best at showcasing the evolution of their sound, combining the stoner metal-tinged hard rock of modern Mastodon with the sharp, progressive-sludge metal of early Mastodon through a variety of tracks. It’s definitely a must-listen, even for Mastodon fans who were disappointed with the band’s lighter, more mainstream direction in recent years. While I do believe “Once More ‘Round the Sun” is still the band’s best record as a whole, “Emperor of Sand” has a variety not found in the former, and may even signal a return to form long-time Mastodon fans have been craving if the band decides to return to their roots even more for the next album.