After fully embracing their progressive rock roots with 2009's Crack the Skye, Mastodon looked to marry those influences with both their earlier stoned-to-the-bone riffs and simpler song structures on both The Hunter and Once More 'Round the Sun. Though neither record was a complete wash, the band's sonic strategizing worked better in some instances than others.
Enter Emperor of Sand, which stands as the best full-length example of this marriage to date. Producer Brendan O'Brien, who helmed things on Crack the Skye, is back behind the boards to give musical direction to Emperor's themes of time, life and death. The band's concept follows a protagonist sentenced to death by a desert ruler who is forced to wander the sandy wastelands, a metaphorical tale inspired by the band's family members' battles with cancer.
The band don't reflect on the sadness so much as the fight to survive after the "Sultan's Curse" is handed down to open the record. The straightforward, driving "Show Yourself" is simplistic in its musical approach but not forgettable, lyrically challenging the protagonist and demanding, "I want to see everything you're made of." Self-doubt is expressed in the soaring chorus of highlight "Steambreather," and the protagonist concludes that, "the battle that rages before my eyes is no different than the one that lives inside my head" in "Ancient Kingdom."
Mastodon are able to balance might and mastery of their instruments without things verging on overindulgent here, something the word "progressive" doesn't immediately guarantee. "Precious Stones" features some dazzling solo work in its back half over Brann Dailor's galloping drums, while "Roots Remain" juxtaposes burly riffing with spacy, clean picking. "Clandestiny" even features a robotic vocoder in tandem with some very alien keys.
Drawing as much from their past as well as their present, Mastodon refuse to go extinct just shy of two decades of music-making. Emperor of Sand is at once emotionally powerful and musically arresting. (Reprise)