by Nick Otte (@ottenicholas)
There are some pieces of music that feel as though they were discovered rather than written – as if an album had been buried in the earth, lying in wait for the right group and the right circumstances to dig it up and deliver it to the world.
Much of the music Atlanta sludge lords Mastodon have released over their long career feels this way. The brutal confidence of their early work like Remission and the stellar execution of ambitious works like Crack The Skye (the band’s last truly great record) continue to ring with an assured and vibrant creative vision. They can carry you off to outer space or bury you in the pressure of unknown depths. So it is that much harder to see what the band, with its last handful of releases, has become: a still competent, but far less invigorating shadow of their former selves.
That is not to say that their new album, Emperor of Sand, is without its strengths. In fact it has many, and for a band whose history is less punctuated by modern classics, would be a great success. But with such a deep understanding of what Mastodon is capable of, Emperor of Sand feels like little more than just another rock album.
This release is perhaps most reminiscent of 2011’s The Hunter (an uneven release that possesses some truly great Mastodon songs, and some far more forgettable) and is among the band’s most straightforward, making distinct use of their new penchant for what some have called “concise,” and others have called “catchy,” songwriting. There is a formulaic quality to the songs, and while that formula works well in small doses, it becomes tiring over the course of nearly a dozen tracks. While the band has discussed, at length, the unifying themes of the record – themes such as time and loss and sickness – it lacks a certain cohesiveness that elevated albums like Leviathan. What holds this album back is hard to articulate on the first few listens, but gradually reveals that the devil (and not the awesome metal devil you might hope) is truly in the details.
The album’s foremost drawbacks can be found in the vocals. It is unfortunate (and something of a bullet in the foot) that Mastodon has again abandoned the unique and powerful vocal approaches that distinguished their early work. Of course this is a band that has been around a long time, a band that has grown older together and whose sensibilities have changed, but the insistent refusal to “scream” is an undeniable weakness. Troy Saunders, whose enraged bellows still elevate previous work, sounds as though he is perpetually reaching for notes outside of his range, causing all emotion behind his performances to be lost amidst the strain of his vocal cords. That said, hats off to Brann Dailor for coming out of left field in recent years as the best “clean” vocalist of the bunch. The single “Show Yourself” is one of, but not one of the better, examples of what he can do while his hands are preoccupied behind the kit. “Steambreather” is a much better show of force for Dailor, and positions him as a capable vocalist in his own right, not just as a foil for the others. His performances feel heartfelt and cut clearly through the mayhem, even if his bag of melodic tricks seems a few sizes too small.
The band has credited Bill Kelleher with the lion’s share of the album’s riffs, of which not much can be said, other than they seem more or less in line with the general character of the band, and are rarely challenging or unexpected. Brent Hinds plays some of the best guitar solos of his career, even if they number a few too many and occur at generally the same point in every song. The guitars are predictably great across the record, but never seem to step outside their comfort zone, large as it may be. All these parts fit together to form something that works; that carries weight and keeps moving right to the end, but never seems to lift us up along the way.
The promise of an opening riff is often squandered by the increasingly inevitable injection of hooks. Heavier tracks like “Clandestiny” are broken apart and made weaker by synthesized sonic explorations and unnecessary effects. “Scorpion Breath,” a powerful track featuring the screams of Scott Kelly (Neurosis), is the closest the band comes to sounding like their old selves, and is a fleeting pleasure to hear. It is one of a handful of pretty wonderful tracks that deserve their seat alongside some of the band’s best latter-days work. “Jaguar God,” the lengthy (at least for this era) closing track is the best offering the band has given as a bridge between the their gift for artful brutality and their recent rigid, hook-centric songwriting – a character that so many metal giants have tended toward in their later years. While it is a powerful way to close a record, it makes the album, and especially the album’s singles, feel like comparatively hollow preamble.
Now, it would be fair to say that this review, and others, looks too ardently at Mastodon’s past work. You can try all you like to put aside the past…but who would want to put such a glorious past aside? At this late stage in any band’s career, a new release begs listeners to look carefully at where an album fits in the band’s catalogue; what it adds or detracts from their overall body of work. We can wonder at what the world might think of this record had it come out years ago, or if it was a debut from a previously unknown group, but as neither is the case such wondering seems wasteful. This is, in point of fact, Mastodon’s seventh studio album, and can be listened to and viewed in no other way. It is a victory in and of itself that the band continues to make good records, that they remain the same four musicians that started the band, and that they strive ever to make music they can be proud of, and we can overanalyze.
While Emperor of Sand may not fall at the very bottom of a list of great Mastodon records, it is still dwarfed by the weight of its mighty predecessors…but that’s not such a terrible thing, is it?