Mastodon maintain their raison d’être by continuing to evoke their eponymous behemoth through the heaviness of their sound, this time infused with a sense of melancholy lacking on earlier releases.
Album Title: Emperor of Sand
That’s what I love about this metal music, man. I get older, it stays the same age.
Evolution within metal is a funny thing. The fundamental ingredients tend to remain the same and the majority of modern bands are heavily referential to bastions of the genre. At the same time there are more metal sub-genres than I can wrap my head around, and every year there are bands like Deafheaven who bring something completely new to the arena. It’s about regular diversification and constant yo-yoing forwards and backwards in time.
Mastodon stand by themselves amidst all this, immutable and entombed within the prism they’ve crafted for themselves. Their mission statement and raison d’être was always to evoke that huge behemoth, some hulking mammoth beast galloping waywardly and destroying everything in its path. It’s music that attempts to tear out your soul. What we get on Emperor of Sand in a way is more of the same. They’ve been hitting these heights for their entire career and I rate all of their albums very highly (except perhaps Once More ‘Round the Sun which was a slight dip in form). However it can be hard to distinguish one album from another, given that the band has never been hook driven.
Given that the ultimate barometer for the quality of metal albums is performance, Mastodon continues to tick all the boxes and please the fans. Vocals play second fiddle to the instrumentation, always at the forefront of their sound. I continue to revel in the weighty, whirling guitars, never far away from breaking out into solo. It’s gyroscopic but cathartic. The drums are staggering, an innovative, technical masterclass. I can never usually remember the songs themselves, just the feeling I get from listening to them, like being grabbed by the arms and shaken around for five minutes (but in a good way?).
What permeates Emperor of Sand is the overwhelming sense of sadness, which is pretty new for the band and infects their melodies as much as their lyrics and imagery. At a first glance I really liked the album’s iconography, reminding me of desert courses on old N64 games. Actually the central metaphor for the lonely desert wanderer, sentenced to death and fighting for survival is pretty heart-breaking as many of the band members drew on their experiences with family members struggling with cancer. Tracks like “Steambreather”, “Word to the Wise” and “Ancient Kingdom” would have been standard belters on previous releases, but are infused with a prominent sense of melancholy here.
It’s very admirable the band can translate this to the audience without every really pausing for breath, and is proof you don’t need to slow down the tempo and pare down the instrumentation to write a sad song. You can rock out but also catch those feels as well, man. While there’s nothing as accessible or catchy as 2011’s Curl of the Burl here the album is still elevated among the band’s catalogue and modern metal outputs in general, and there’s not a single dent in the track list. Yes we still feel the heaviness of their sound, but for the first time there’s a glimpse of vulnerability and weakness too, making it a richer experience.