There are two Mastodons out there. One is the prog metal behemoth of their early years, the acclaimed musical visionaries who bridged the musical chops of Rush with the intensity of cult US underground metal heroes Neurosis and wrapped it all around mind-bending concepts about whales (2004’s Leviathan), crystal skulls (2006’s Blood Mountain) and mad, dimension-hopping Russian monks (2009’s Crack The Skye). Let’s call this Old Mastodon.
The other Mastodon is the one that appeared on their two most recent albums, 2011’s The Hunter and 2014’s Once More ’Round The Sun. This Mastodon are an altogether more streamlined proposition: concept-free and epic of chorus, they’re closer to Queens Of The Stone Age and Foo Fighters than the restless musical questors of old. Let’s call this – you guessed it – New Mastodon. The question is, which Mastodon will turn up on their seventh full-length album?
Like a band who have flipped a coin and watched as it landed on its edge, Emperor Of Sand is the work of both Mastodons, New and Old. They’ve returned to the overarching – and, let’s face it, frequently baffling – conceptual approach for the first time in years, but they’ve also been careful not to throw the commercial baby out with the bathwater either. Sure, it still skews towards New Mastodon, but you can hear old Mastodon straining to break out in their prog metal glory.
Let’s get the concept out of the way first. It features a central character who is forced to wander a desert after being handed a death sentence by the titular emperor – a storyline that is, in time-honoured prog tradition, as clear as mud. According to drummer, lyricist and co-vocalist Brann Dailor, it’s a metaphor for the existential challenges of living with – and potentially dying of – cancer (illness and death are core themes for Mastodon, from the title of their debut album, Remission, to the death of guitarist Brent Hinds’ brother providing the inspiration for The Hunter).
If that all makes Emperor Of Sand sound like a heavy-duty slog through disease-of-the-week TV movie territory, then fear not. Aside from the odd reference to riding ‘beyond mortality’ (Ancient Kingdom) and ‘your malignancy’ (Jaguar God) the lyrics are so obtuse as to be little more than decorative.
Which puts the focus squarely on the music. For a band with such a forward-looking reputation, Mastodon haven’t really broken down any barriers for a while, least of all their own. The great evolutionary leaps of their earlier career have become a fast-footed holding pattern.
Then again, most bands would kill for a holding pattern like this. The complex riffs that power every Mastodon album are present and correct, as are Dailor’s ever-inventive drum patterns. Opening track Sultan’s Curse shifts like the desert sands: one minute relentless and choking as a dust storm, the next shimmering like heat haze. Roots Remain and Andromeda are dense and intricate without ever being impenetrable, while Scorpion Breath – with roared vocals from Brent Hinds – reconnects with their full-on metal roots.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are Show Yourself and Ancient Kingdom. The former jumps from twisting, slippery verses into an epic arena-sized chorus. The latter is as sweet-sounding as Mastodon have ever been: straightforward alt-rock that wouldn’t sound out of place on a mainstream rock radio station. No crime, of course – every prog band from Yes to Genesis knows the value of the instant hit.
They’ve saved the most startling song for last. Jaguar God begins is an eight-minute pocket epic that starts with a plaintive acoustic guitar and ends with the mother of all Mastodon solos, bringing the main protagonist’s story to a close (SPOILER ALERT: they die. But then at the same time they don’t. Answers on a postcard…). It’s progressive in a way that the rest of the album – if we’re being honest – never truly is.
It will be interesting to see where they go next. Much of Emperor Of Sand feels like a halfway house between the recent and less recent past, between New and Old Mastodon. It’s hard to shake the feeling that they have so much more in the tank, that if anyone can take prog metal to stranger new dimensions it’s them. For now, though, this holding pattern will do just fine.