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Mastodon - Emperor Of Sand album art

Emperor Of Sand

31st March 2017 – Reprise Records

01. Sultan’s Curse
02. Show Yourself
03. Precious Stones
04. Steambreather
05. Roots Remain
06. Word to the Wise
07. Ancient Kingdom
08. Clandestiny
09. Andromeda
10. Scorpion Breath
11. Jaguar God

It’s hardly surprising that over a career spanning the entirety of the 21st century and a sextet studio albums, hairy American giants Mastodon have seen fit to change things up between records. They’re a progressive band in the classic sense of the word, and as a result different people prefer different releases among the six based on the style and substance. Aggressive early pair Remission and Leviathan grew wings and ramped up the prog for Blood Mountain - and then again for Crack The Skye - before The Hunter  and Once More ‘Round The Sun toned down the experimentalism in favour of solid, rockier outings. It does seem that the older the four members get – bear in mind that the youngest among them is 42 – the softer around the edges they have inevitably have become.

But what the Georgians’ seventeen years of experience has bred more than anything is wisdom. Happily, seventh outing Emperor Of Sand bridges notably middle and latter Mastodon to affect a glorious, best-of-both-worlds mesh of scope and creative discipline. From the off, it’s vibrant and fierce; there’s an energy to particularly the first three tracks that sets the album up with a welcome vitality. Through this, even radio-friendly number “Show Yourself” – a more straightforward piece, and the most akin to Mastodon’s most recent material – holds its own against the common “dad rock” criticism.

Much like perennial prog masterpiece Crack The Skye, Emperor Of Sand is a concept piece with a heavy narrative bent, centered around familial brushes with cancer, treatment and mortality in general, and packaged around the story of a man wandering a desert, sentenced to die. Unsurprisingly, Mastodon have used the same producer, Brendan O’Brien, and his choosing for this record is clearly pointed. That they haven’t trodden this path for eight years, despite the critical success of Crack The Skye, is telling as to the authenticity of the what they want to convey. In both, Mastodon have conveyed powerful, moving narratives wrapped in a partly allegorical, partly fantastical shell, and it works all the more for not being over-used over the course of their career.

Befitting the record’s breadth in this respect, final track “Jaguar God” is suitably protracted, and encompasses a wealth of ideas. From a delicate, acoustic guitar-led intro, it accelerates through the gears into a driving, thunderous wallbanger, and finally a gorgeous, noodly epic. Brent’s unrestrained soloing is certainly one of the highlights of the album; an indulgent sauce on a creamy, dripping cone of proggy ice cream, spread tastefully across the record – keep an ear out for the closer to “Word To The Wise” and the slow-roller in the thoroughly head-bangable “Roots Remain” in particular.

The segues in “Jaguar God“ are noticeably unnoticeable too, feeling both organic and considered. Brent’s vocal drips with soul throughout, and his. At eight minutes, it’s the longest piece on the album – there are no monstrous, 13-minute Last Barons here – which is likely to satisfy and disappoint in equal measure, but it’s about right really, providing something for everybody.

Elsewhere, “Andromeda” provides one of the most powerful riffs the band has written in quite some time. The song itself is dichotomous; when the riff is being played, it’s like Mastodon of old, but in between it’s expansive, but feels somewhat too softened. The best remedy for this is to blast the ever-living Christ out of the record – a good rule in general, but Emperor Of Sand does generally benefit from volume.

While it’s not the Skye-Cracking return some have been wishing for since the release of the last two albums, Emperor Of Sand does a great job of laying its own identity across the sandy wastes it inhabits, and draws from every facet of Mastodon’s past in the process – and particularly from that 2009 landmark. In that respect, it’s probably the second best Mastodon album, and it comes heartily recommended.