Mastodon’s seventh studio album, Emperor of Sand, begins with a “Curse”… and for good reason. Modern metal’s fiercest four-piece suffered a litany of tragic personal events leading up to the album’s writing process. Bassist-vocalist Troy Sanders’ wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, drummer-vocalist Brann Dailor’s mother endured chemotherapy, having battled cancer for the last 40 years, and guitarist Bill Kelliher’s mother passed away from a brain tumor.
The members of Mastodon have treaded lightly around the dreaded “C” word while promoting Emperor of Sand, obviously still reeling from the suffering and death of their dearly beloved, but it’s the “C” word that inspired Mastodon to write their first concept album since 2009’s Crack the Skye. By no coincidence, the Georgia titans once again recruited Crack the Skye producer Brendan O’Brien, who took the suicide of Dailor’s sister, Skye, and helped stitch together a 21st century masterwork from the drummer’s loss and a far-out concept about a paraplegic astral projectionist’s journey into the body of Rasputin.
Instead of outer space and tsarist Russia, Emperor of Sand is set in the desert. Our protagonist is delivered a death sentence and is left to wander the endless arid landscape, representing the all-too-real hell of chemotherapy. Despite the gravity of this album, “Sultan’s Curse” immediately takes fans to riff heaven. Every note that Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds strike feels essential, as does Brann Dailor’s brilliant choice of cymbals, adding to the song’s distressing mood.
Though the lyrics to “Sultan’s Curse” are very abstract, Emperor of Sand promptly becomes more straight-forward as “Show Yourself,” “Precious Stones” and the sludge-trudging “Steambreather” hit listeners’ eardrums. Lines like, “Don’t waste your time / Don’t let it slip away from you,” and, “I wonder who I am / Reflections all for nothing / I wonder where I stand / I’m afraid of myself,” transport fans back from the desert and into the resonant thoughts of Mastodon’s introspective lyrical brain.
The vocal performances from Sanders, Dailor and Hinds are all spectacular throughout Emperor of Sand, offering perhaps the most complete array of vocal dynamics throughout the band’s 17-year existence. It’s Dailor, however, who emerges not only as Mastodon’s strongest pure singer, but one of the most refined vocalists in rock and metal’s current landscape. His soaring highs and somber crooning within “Roots Remain” are jaw-dropping, as is Dailor’s gorgeous chorus in “Word to the Wise.”
It only takes until the halfway point of Emperor of Sand to realize how progressive the album is. The unruly exploration of Hinds’ and Kelliher’s guitar melodies is as expansive as the desert, met with all the plateaus, pitfalls and shifting footholds one would encounter on a nefarious march. Despite the album’s grievous subject matter, Emperor of Sand shines with extreme moments of triumph on cuts like “Ancient Kingdom” and “Clandestiny” thanks to some of the highest notes Troy Sanders has ever reached for. The feeling of triumph can be easily attributed to Sanders’ wife being in remission, but it’s Kelliher who can also be singled out. Though Bill lost his mother, he’s been winning a battle against alcoholism for over two years.
“For those two years, I started writing and writing and I wasn’t waking up everyday super hung over and like, ‘Ahh, I don’t want to touch the guitar,’” Kelliher told us in a recent interview. “The creativity in me came back to the surface … I got control of my life again. That’s where most of these ideas and things came from.”
Kelliher showcases his self-proclaimed favorite riff he’s ever written on track 10 of the album — “Scorpion Breath” — which also features Mastodon’s obligatory (and always kick-ass) vocal cameo from Neurosis’ Scott Kelly. Unsurprisingly, “Scorpion Breath” is one of Emperor of Sand’s heaviest and most guitar-driven tracks, setting up a mean framework for the album’s solemn closer, “Jaguar God.”
Brent Hinds’ bluesy vocal tone takes hold of “Jaguar God” with weathered hands. It’s a rare display of ballad-esque singing from Mastodon’s most unhinged member, with stunning harmonies sure to give fans a new perspective of what Hinds can do with his eccentric voice. “Jaguar God” serves as the most multi-dimensional track on the record, taking the listener through sudden twists and turns as our story’s protagonist faces death and freedom simultaneously.
Compared to Mastodon’s premier metal discography of the 2000s, the band’s work in the 2010s has left some fans, especially the concept fiends, yearning for something deeper. The Hunter and Once More ‘Round the Sun are damn strong albums, but Emperor of Sand is Mastodon’s crown jewel of the decade. Like Emperor of Sand’s main character, Mastodon have weathered cataclysmic circumstances and emerged inspirited on the other side.