by Ryan Fine
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what to expect from Mastodon. Their first four albums, which were spread out across the first decade of the century, singlehandedly brought sludge metal to new heights of popularity, impressing hardcore and casual metal listeners alike. In the early 2010s, the band suddenly switched to a slicked-back, easily digestible sound, which brought them commercial success, but little appreciation from fans and critics. Though their most recent album Once More Round the Sun did not reach the heights of Leviathan, it was enough of a recovery for fans of early Mastodon to be justifiably excited for what came next. Sadly, though, their new album Emperor of Sand is not the return to form that it could have been. It sounds acceptable on the surface, but it doesn’t take much digging to uncover the tired mess underneath.
Clean production as a crutch
Emperor of Sand was produced by the band’s old friend Brendan O’Brien. O’Brien previously collaborated with the band on their 2009 monolith Crack the Skye and was a big part of what made that album great. Unfortunately for him, however, he’s not working with nearly the musical caliber anymore that he was back then. He deserves a lot of credit for holding this album together, but using a polished production sound to mask weak songwriting is a lot like showering with Febreze. You won’t end up smelling like flowers; you’ll just smell like Febreze and dirt.
Despite his best efforts to mix some of the classic unforgiving Mastodon sound with their recent radio-ready alternative metal, for the most part this album still veers closest to the band’s 2011 disaster: The Hunter. Even though Emperor of Sand may beat out its predecessor in the famed Loudness War, it has the same general sound once you even out the levels. Though its album cover may try to argue, this is another shallow Mastodon release with not much to offer apart from distorted guitars.
Someone left the cheese out for too long
There’s a lot about this album that isn’t spectacular, but by far its most glaring flaw is its lyrics. For some reason, Mastodon is digging up all of the cheesiest lines from the metal music of decades ago, to the point where it feels more like a parody. Lines about prophecies being realized and being afraid of yourself plague this record like mold. Like most Mastodon records, this album follows a story-line, which in some ways dictates what the words are about. However, coming from a band who masterfully crafted an album based on “Moby Dick” a decade ago, this is no excuse.
Possibly the worst offenders on the album are the disappointing single “Show Yourself” and the relatively deep cut “Word to the Wise”. The former is essentially just a basic alternative rock song with a metal sound. It abuses basic metal clichés like “only you can save yourself” while trying and failing to sound edgy. The latter tries to sound more like classic metal, introducing half-baked fantasy anecdotes like “I fell into a pit of lies.” There’s a reason we left this stuff in the 80s, and coming from innovators like Mastodon, it sounds even more dated.
Past, present…no future
Mastodon used to be on the cutting edge of metal music. In their early days, they paid homage to the past in subtle enough ways that their sound stayed almost entirely unique and innovative. With their newest release they have begun pulling more from their influences and contemporaries than ever before, and many of these tracks actually sound like they could have been written by any of the watered-down alternative rock groups whom Mastodon themselves have inspired.
Several of the louder tracks, like “Precious Stones” and “Sultan’s Curse”, would be perfectly believable as Avenged Sevenfold songs. The closing track “Jaguar God” is a slow ballad that mirrors Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” a little bit too closely. In moderation there’s nothing wrong with bands wearing their influences on their sleeves. The problem is that Mastodon goes past straight-up admiration, taking ideas without offering anything new of their own. There’s no band in the universe who can keep moving forward forever, but it’s still disappointing to watch Mastodon take yet another step backward.
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All Images From: Youtube
Emperor of Sand
For those who enjoyed Once More Round the Sun, it was reasonable to expect Mastodon to finally return to the forefront of the sludge metal scene. But the band is barely working in that genre at all anymore, opting instead to rehash ancient metal tropes and poorly weld them with the sound of modern radio metal bands. The production is effective, but too glossy to hide the lyrics, which are some of the cringiest in the Mastodon discography. You can tell that this band is still comprised of good musicians under the surface, but they are no longer interested in making new and exciting contributions to music the way they did before.
Ryan is a Music Media Production major who wrote the first ever Byte music review and has been involved with nearly every other section at some point. He is also an event planner at Village Green Records and the primary booking coordinator for the store’s outdoor concerts.