Review by Dom Vigil
Mastodon are tackling heavy subject matter yet again on their newest concept album, Emperor of Sand. The topic of cancer is not an easy thing to write about, let alone deal with, but it is something that has unfortunately plagued the band over the last three years between releases. During this time, bassist Troy Sanders’ wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, drummer Brann Dailor’s mother went through chemotherapy and sadly, guitarist Bill Kelliher’s mother passed away after suffering a brain tumor. It’s no surprise that these events and the struggles, pain and grief that go along with them made their way into the band’s music, but in true Mastodon fashion, they’ve molded it into a surprisingly stunning, yet incredibly dark concept album.
Opening Emperor of Sand is the menacing and dark “Sultan’s Curse” which really sets the tone for the songs that follow. Musically, this track is spearheaded by strong guitar work and incredible percussion, and vocally, it transports you into a darker, desolate world as you follow the protagonist through the desert. Shaking things up immediately, though is the second track and single, “Show Yourself.” More upbeat, fast paced and dare I say poppier than the opening track, “Show Yourself” might be a bit of a drastic change, but it is also a welcome one, not only showcasing the band’s growth but also promising quite a bit of diversity from this release. The cherry on top are the spectacular vocals and subtle harmonies.
Although at times, the flow from one song to another throughout the album can be a little choppy, the underlying theme and mood on the record is consistent, tying things together nicely. Fourth track, “Steambreather” has that darker, heavy sound that “Sultan’s Curse” kicks things off with, giving the album a more well-rounded feeling. In fact, “Steambreather” has a little bit of everything, really showcasing the band’s full vocal range and their ability to change mood and tone in the blink of an eye. The only thing really missing in this song, and throughout the rest of the album, is a heavy bass tone that you’ll find yourself longing for. This is easy to overlook, however, as the band takes you through an otherwise complex soundscape and emotional journey.
Easily the strongest moments on the album come in the epic, theatrical middle point. “Roots Remain” evokes a feeling of helplessness and despair, while “Word To The Wise” is one of the fuller sounding tracks on the album. Following suit is “Ancient Kingdom,” with a dark, looming sense of finality. Some of the strongest, most chaotic guitar work can be found on this song, as well. By the time you reach this seventh track, you’re bound to feel at least a little bit exhausted, as these songs really do feel like wandering around the vast desert. These themes are driven home once more on the dark and hopeless “Andromeda,” which explores the anger and frustration that comes along with losing loved ones and being unable to do anything about it.
Closing out Emperor of Sand in stunning, theatrical fashion is the final chapter, “Jaguar God.” Much like “Steambreather,” this song really explores Mastodon’s sound, kicking off with acoustic guitar and clean vocals before morphing into a frantic, full band sound, spearheaded by incredible harmonies. “Jaguar God” will leave you feeling exhausted once more, yet incredibly fulfilled. Mastodon will take you on an emotional journey with this transparent release, and the result is something you won’t soon forget.
Listen to "Roots Remain" or "Show Yourself"
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