Mastodon’s Emperor of Sand could easily have been a disaster and it is hard to explain exactly why it isn’t, as it has a lot of elements lined up against it.
After spending their last two discs probing for a way onto rock radio and mainstream accessibility events in the band member’s personal lives sent them back to a their old formula–concept albums filled with shifting song structures and excessive prog tendencies. They brought on producer Brendan O’Brien whose work on groups 2009 Crack the Skye left their compelling compositions sounding broken, muted and patched together.
The good news here is that O’Brien does not get in the way–his production is precise and crisp–bestowing the kind of clarity and energy on these tracks that he brought to Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire. So it isn’t O’Brien who is to blame for just how disjointed many of the tracks feel on Emperor–instead it is the band still struggling for an accessibility they simply aren’t capable of.
“Sultan’s Curse” is what at this point has become a stereotypical album opener for the band–a stampede of scrambling drums and thick rigid riffs. “Show Yourself” is a pop metal dance number reminiscent of both Queens of the Stone Age and Baroness’ purple album–the only thing missing here is the playfulness of either of those bands.
“Precious Stones” loses all of its momentum with a stilted sung chorus of “Don’t waste your time.” If anything the chorus is convincing–’Yes Mastodon, thank you for the suggestion, I will put on a better album.’ But there are treasures awaiting those who make it past the album’s openers.
It is the fourth track where things start to get interesting. “Steambreather” begins like a cross between something on Tool’s Aenima and Rage Against the Machine’s debut. A pulsing riff builds slowly until cracking open into a gallop. The metal riffage gives way to major chords and another radio-friendly chorus. The only problem is the singing here is painful and labored. Again the influence of Baroness’ latest album is felt in spades.
On “Roots Remain” lush Flamenco-style guitars give way to power riffs and blazing leads. The radio-friendly chorus doesn’t disrupt the flow but instead elevates it like something written by A Perfect Circle. “Word to the Wise” erupts like a mix between King Crimson and The Deftones–this is classic Mastodon.
To say that Mastodon has matured would be totally misleading. This is after all an album about death, plain and simple. While some critics have praised the ‘lyrical complexity’ of the album it’s hard to identify any great strides in that area. What they have done on Emperor is figured out (mostly) how to have fun and hold on to themselves while experimenting with accessibility.
Taken as a whole, Emperor is a flawed album. And yet it contains some of the best songs they’ve ever written. “Jaguar God” and “Scorpion Breath” are epics that stand alongside the jewels of their songwriting catalog. With band members involved in various side projects that appear designed to net them more mainstream attention one has to wonder how many more albums Mastodon has in them. It’s probably time for listeners to appreciate them for what they do well and allow that maybe, just maybe, Mastodon have reached their apex of their abilities to crossover. If Emperor is that limit, they have nothing to be ashamed of.