It’s easy to disregard an album like Mastodon’s Emperor of Sand without ever listening to it. Too quickly, one can encounter the fantastical cover art, glance through the unusual song titles (“Scorpion Breath,” for example), make a hundred assumptions about what it will sound like, and then move on.
To do so here, with the band’s seventh studio album, would be to miss 51 minutes of skillful, precise riffs and intricately structured songs that interplay heavy and melodic almost seamlessly. From the near-hymnal melodies of “Ancient Kingdom” to the unexpected synthesizers on “Clandestiny,” a keen sense of technique pervades. If one of the genre’s major attractions is the inherent virtuosity of its performers, Mastodon deliver in spades. This is especially true of Brann Dailor’s drumming, both driving in the heavy metal tradition and unpredictable in the way of jazz.
Emperor of Sand succeeds mostly as a study of Mastodon’s patient song structures. Their ability to evolve a motif without it becoming tiresome, such as on the eight-minute album closer, “Jaguar God,” is akin to watching a tightrope walker. Though the listener experiences it intensely, the performer maintains form and competency. The delayed gratification of technical soundness is most evident on this last track, wherein the acoustic instruments that mark the introduction carry the song for nearly half its length before the electric guitars finally blast.
For some, this calculative approach is the exact reason they listen to metal, while for others it could come off as mechanical, off-putting, even discomforting in its precision. While Emperor of Sand radiates exactitude, there is probably very little here to convert one who does not already favor the genre.
But it is worth noting that Mastodon have one other trick up their sleeve besides flashy instrumentation and dense vocal harmonies: their lyricism. This is, after all, the band that wrote an entire concept album about Moby-Dick. Using the story of a beleaguered desert wanderer as the album’s central metaphor, Mastodon delve into themes of mortality and redemption. More specifically, according to Dailor, it uses the scorched-Earth imagery to describe cancer and chemotherapy, which various of the band’s friends and family have lived through in recent years. Underneath the focused instrumentation and bigger-than-life production by Brendan O’Brien, very real and very personal emotions swirl, though obfuscated by imagery befitting a fantasy novel.
To that end, Mastodon are more like Game of Thrones than Coldplay, just as Thrones has more in common with heavy metal than Moby-Dick. That the band carries almost an hour’s worth of music on a high fantasy concept, without ever wandering gauchely into “gather my horse and weapons” territory, is an understated feat in a genre characterized by bigness.
And, anyway, who doesn’t enjoy a great guitar solo now and again? Emperor of Sand may not be Mastodon’s best album, not even its best this decade, but it is nevertheless a worthy endeavor that bridges the mythological and the personal, grandeur and emotion.