Mastodon is back with Emperor of Sand (Reprise Records), and the lead-off single (and first track) “Sultan’s Curse” gets right to the point. Forty seconds in and you’ve already heard a pair of sledgehammer riffs and two different fire-breathing vocalists. This is something of a concept album, and this first song describes a lone figure banished to the dessert (“tired and lost, no one to trust”) and haunted by his mortality. When the band’s third vocalist, drummer Brann Dailor, joins the fray, he details the desperate situation, singing, “Your feet have been tied and your tongue in your hand.” This is Mastodon doing what we hope and expect they’ll deliver every time: a gnarly narrative set over fierce, muscular, heavy metal chaos.
There are plenty of songs here that exhibit the classic Mastodon modus operandi, but about half the album shows off other sides of the band’s split-personalities. “Show Yourself” and “Steambreather” are short and sweet, with grooves borrowed from the Queens of the Stone Age. “Roots Remain” is a full-on epic. It begins with the band’s heaviest bashing in a decade before transitioning into a soaring chorus. That’s followed by double bass drums in 3/4 time and one of Brent Hinds most melodic guitar solos ever. “Word to the Wise” is similarly heavy and, as if to prove he hasn’t gone soft, Hinds rips out an absolutely sick screaming lead. Almost every song on the back half has some kind of shocker, some dramatic moment that’s among the prettiest or ugliest in the Mastodon catalogue. The result is a record that keeps changing, keeps delivering, keeps offering more rewards with every deep listen.
For this release, Mastodon have reunited with producer Brendan O’Brien, who helmed 2009’s Crack the Skye, the band’s commercial breakthrough and their last concept album. (Of course, most of Mastodon’s albums are concept albums.) With the way it blended the band’s loose cannon ferocity with twisted, earworm melodies, Crack the Skye was in many ways the band’s peak. If, after two intentionally straightforward albums, Emperor of Sand is an attempt to climb back to that earlier summit, consider it done. This album is just as vicious and exciting as Crack the Skye, but even more than that one, this record conclusively demonstrates the incredible range of Mastodon’s monstrous powers.