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Mastodon Break Paths, But Tread Lightly on Emperor of Sand

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Emperor of Sand is Mastodon’s seventh album, and their third release removed from that perfect trio of concept albums, LeviathanBlood Mountain, and Crack the Skye, three of the all-time great albums not only in the genre, but in metal history. After a two-album respite from time-travelling Russian mystics and three-headed sasquatches, the ‘Don are back in the high-concept game with Emperor of Sand, a record that attempts to tie together their discography’s loose threads.

The story of Emperor of Sand is their simplest. After being handed a death sentence by a desert ruler, its protagonist wanders a lifeless wasteland and contemplates the meaning of life. Wander and muse — that’s it.

“At the end of the story, the person simultaneously dies and is saved. It’s about going through cancer, going through chemotherapy and all the things associated with that. I didn’t want to be literal about it. But it’s all in there. You can read between the lines.” –Brann Dailor

Musically, Emperor is far from a callback to Blood Mountain or Skye. Its firmly in the “other stuff” camp of material that they’ve been working with since The Hunter — loose, poppy rock songs with a tinge of classic Mastodon.

This isn’t to say that “other stuff” should be equated with “bad stuff.” It’s just different. Mastodon made a very conscious choice to step out from the shadow of their early-career ambition — to lean back into the groove — and make records like their idols in the Melvins or Rush. Churn em’ out, have fun, don’t overthink anything. Interestingly, it’s the complete opposite approach from what their former label-mates and generational peers in The Dillinger Escape Plan took, which was to seize control of their body of work by quitting.

I like aspects of Mastodon’s “other stuff.” They may not write with as hyper-precise a vision as they used to, but for the most part, they’ve gotten better at being themselves. It’s pretty rare in rock music that every band member’s specific personality shines through — for Mastodon, we’re talking a Led Zeppelin-caliber group dynamic. If Emperor of Sand reveals anything, it’s that Mastodon is a product of these four specific individuals. Take one man out, and it’s not the same band. That holds true whether they’re writing crushers, proggers, or radio-friendly anthems.

When Emperor of Sand “goes out,” the album succeeds. From “Clandestiny” to climactic classic-rock closer “Jaguar God,” Mastodon move gracefully between psych-rock, dissonant grind, arena rock, and note-y heavy metal. It’s a stretch of tunes packed full of musical ideas. Songs like “Scorpion Breath” (one of their best post-Skye tunes) and the riff breaks in “Andromeda” are perfect examples of the caliber of writing Mastodon are capable of when they really lean in: melodic, exciting, and daring. They’re not quite at the level of songwriting they used to execute — as good as “Jaguar God” is, one can’t help but think of “Heart’s Alive” and “The Last Baron” — but these tunes have a nice, breezy looseness.

But the hooks, the experimentation, the harmonies… those aren’t the issues this album has. Like The Hunter and Once More Round The Sun, it’s the heavy parts, the toe in their past that Mastodon haven’t fully shaken loose, that drag. There are glimpses of the band’s wily riff-writing glory — particularly on “Scorpion Breath” — but the radical flourishes of songs like “Bladecatcher,” “Capillarian Crest,” and “Divinations,” which initially made this band so exciting, just aren’t there.

Its not like they’ve veered into St. Anger territory — this band is too purely talented — but there is definitely a “stock” feel to some of the middle-album tracks. Mastodon have tended to both over- and under-write in the post-Skye era: too many songs, too few ideas in each. Despite being jam-packed, Leviathan and Blood Mountain had perfect thematic arcs, and every song was ripe with musical ideas.

Part of this comes down to simple musical mechanics. Brann Dailor’s playing is fantastic as usual, but he has focused far more on tone and groove than on stylistic fervor: gone are the over-the-bar fills and the Eddie Van Halen-as-drummer parts. Bill Kelliher can still rip, but his riff-writing has deviated away from delirious Zappa-esque inventiveness. Troy has become adept at leaning back in the pocket at the expense of multi-layered lines. And Brent is, well, Brent. There’s no changing that space-cowboy, as pure a guitar soloist as Samuel L. Jackson is an actor.

My hope is that one day Mastodon go fully out, breaking loose from their heavy metal past. The space-rock stretch of “Clandestiny” and the Genesis-echoing “Jaguar God” suggest an exciting pathway into bizzaro-land that the band hasn’t yet unmasked. They’ve already made what is quite possibly the greatest riff-album of all time in Blood Mountain, and maybe it’s time they embrace their inner strange.

Mastodon’s Emperor of Sand comes out March 31 on Reprise. Pre-order it here.

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