If Mastodon’s Crack the Skye tapped into the mystical and cerebral, Emperor of Sand nosedives deep into ugly, muddy earth. Those psychedelic dreams of body-hopping Russian czars and interstellar travel are long gone, replaced by the looming, real threat of a slow end. Reaching towards a topic like cancer, something so personal, is a bold move for the band. The invitation offered here is not like the invitations of yesterday. We’re not battling legendary sea beasts for glory anymore. We’re not scaling the mountain and unraveling its mystery. Now, we’re thrown into the thick of heartbreak and personal drama in a way that’s only been hinted at before. If you’re willing to methodically peel back the layers of conceptual lyricism to dig in, Mastodon’s heaviest record to date — thematically, at least — is there. For everyone else, there’s no reason to worry. Atlanta’s metal kings haven’t forgotten how to riff with the best of them.
Mastodon’s latest is unquestionably the band’s most feral record since the 2000s, reveling in the group’s early-career sludge metal savagery. But instead of dialing back to the past for a total retread, the band brings its original strengths back into the context of their new-found love for poppy hooks. It’s a great trick. “Precious Stones” sports one of the band’s slickest grooves in years while rekindling the explosive energy that propelled them to the top of the metal scene years ago. Here, intensity and accessibility come together to create the total package.
Elsewhere, “Roots Remain” brings the entire Mastodon canon to bare in stunning fashion. Waves of psychedelic synth and strummed acoustics set an eerie tone before a crushing, mammoth riff sweeps it all away. Later, the battery subsides, and drummer Brann Dailor takes the lead for a haunting, atmospheric interlude. It’s moments like these, when the band untethers their moors and charges into oblivion, that Emperor of Sand is at its best.
If there’s anything that undercuts this record — that is, other than the trite radio rock of “Show Yourself” or the silly roboticized vocals on “Clandestiny” — it’s the production. More often than not, it works. Indeed, the album’s best moments all but buckle beneath the weight of the thick, suffocating sound design. As a play in thematics, it works, too, conveying the sense of fleeting mortality buried beneath the gravity of impending illness. But on multiple occasions, this same production buries its lead instruments beneath the mire. Hinds and Kelliher aren’t the sort of guitarists you want to drown in the muck; they’re the two you want front and center in your mix, burning barns and scorching earth. Emperor of Sand lets them down one too many times.
Even so, Mastodon’s latest is a testament to everything the group does well. Sickening sludge, nimble hooks, and technical wizardry all come together. Plainly, Emperor of Sand stomps — even if it stomps over well-trampled ground.