What will you do when you run out of time? Mastodon‘s latest album, ‘Emperor of Sand’, challenges this question. Stephen King wrote – “Time takes it all, whether you want it to or not” – and the past 18 months have been yet another lesson in time for the Atlanta band. They’ve been gifted with the insight of impermanence once more, and have channeled these lessons into a fucking masterpiece.
The concept: a man is condemned to die at the hands of a desert king. Cursed to wander the drought-ridden land, he battles through, learning lessons before his time comes to an end. Eventually, the star of the saga succumbs to death’s grip, embarking on a journey that we must all eventually face. ‘Emperor of Sand’ is a sage addition to the Mastodon catalogue, joining predecessors like ‘Leviathan,’ and ‘Crack the Skye’ in sharing a concept and provoking the audience to listen and really process the album’s message. This isn’t a new thing for Mastodon. Each of their albums carries its own individual story while tying in perfectly with the rest of the catalogue. Collectively, the band’s seven-album epoch forms an overarching story, a sonic progression through their own lives. With ‘Emperor of Sand’, it feels like we’re witnessing the latter stages of this journey.
Musically, this album profoundly heavy. There’s something heartbreaking about it – an invisible anchor that is the fifth member of the band, adding intense, morose beauty. There is no fundamental diversion from the trademark elements that make up Mastodon. However, this album feels like another dimension has been added; a presence just out of sight that can’t grasped.
There are parts of this album that really capture my attention. In “Precious Stones”, the first thing I notice is Brann Dailor’s drums. A subtle yet clear addition of a tambourine can be heard throughout the song – it might seem like a small addition, but it really adds a new depth. “Don’t waste your time/don’t let it slip away from you.” – Troy Sanders sings in the chorus. It is a stark reminder of the concept of this album, and the message it’s trying to convey to the listener.
“Roots Remain” is a haunting song. The beginning of the track opens with a quiet yet commanding strum of a steel string guitar, accompanied by a floating, distorted sonic breeze, echoing from one side of my headphones to the other. It reminds me of the first few bars we hear in “Tread Lightly” from the band’s previous album, ‘Once More ‘Round the Sun.’ In a press release by the band, guitarist Brent Hinds praised producer Brendan O’Brien’s work, highlighting his unique additions to the record. Perhaps this introduction was a result of some of O’Brien’s contributions. The acoustic suddenly ceases, abruptly replaced with explosive guitars and Sanders’ vocals ripping through the once introspective moment. Halfway through, the softer cadence and ambiance leads to some emotional lyrics Sanders sings. It feels like he could be reading from a goodbye letter, and suddenly, the experience becomes even heavier. Intimate moments like this are threaded into the fabric of the song, adding more power as it progresses.
“Clandestiny” is a highlight of the album that presents an urgent cadence. Getting to the chorus, the darkness takes over as Sanders sings “give your life/so I can breathe/save a life/is all we need.” The chorus adds a sense of desperation for the album’s protagonist, as if he’s realizing his time is running out quickly. Halfway through the song, there is a great change, featuring additional distortion over the guitars. “Clandestiny” finishes with a big guitar solo as the vocals fade out, repeating the chorus as it slowly disappears.
The album closes out with “Jaguar God,” with a beautiful acoustic introduction accompanied by harmonising vocals, and dramatic drums. The song builds up from this point and becomes heavier and heavier. A solid bass line becomes a musical focal point, before being taken over by what could be described as a classic Mastodon blend of timing changes and incredible musicianship. As “Jaguar God” closes the album out, it ends the way it began – with a slowing pace and a Hinds solo, seeing the desert warrior off into the night.
Bottom Line: ‘Emperor of Sand’ is emotional as hell, and musically the best Mastodon album I’ve experienced. The biggest element is the darkness just behind the veil; that unnamed presence. Maybe it can be named, and maybe its name is heartbreak. It’s the heartbreak that Mastodon have endured individually and collectively over the past two years, bringing that raw intimacy to the centre stage of this record.