I waited in line beneath the hot Texas sun to pre-order my vinyl copy of the new Mastodon album and to get a lithograph signed by the band. When I approached the table, their guitarist Brent Hinds said, “I remember you! You were outside smoking cigarettes an hour ago.”
Perhaps he was a bit hungover—and he undoubtedly meets a lot of people—but I replied, “Yeah. I was also on your tour bus with my friend The Lizardman the last time you were in Austin.” “Oh shit!,” he exclaimed. “How is he? WHERE is he?”
If you’re anything like me, you like heavy metal and you love Mastodon—those magnificent beasts from Atlanta for whom I’ve skipped rent payments so I could see them live almost a dozen times. Four brilliant musicians, three singers with complimentary voices, and a monstrous sound that is above the fold in this world of mall-metal for 12-year-old girls who claim to like metal because the singer is “dreamy” and they bought an Iron Maiden t-shirt because Lindsay Lohan wore one. Oh, no…Mastodon—as their name implies—is huge, furry, intricate, intense, and mythical. (One tale revolves around my friend playing a guitar solo at Voodoo Fest and Brent puked on my buddy’s shoes from the front row).
And their latest release, Emperor of Sand, does not disappoint.
If it’s not an epic journey, it’s not metal—it’s simply hardcore. Metal involves a quest of Tolkienesque proportions with battle axes strapped to backs while riding atop a giant war horse (or perhaps a dragon, I suppose). And as a result, the opening track “Sultan’s Curse” is a true gallop into battle. I was literally holding my hands in the air and bouncing in my chair as if I were on a clydesdale in a Frank Frazetta painting.
I was a little disappointed by the second cut “Show Yourself,” mainly because I don’t care for tracks that solely feature the drummer Brann’s vocals. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great singer. But I get the feeling that he won’t let anyone else back him up on “his” songs. Also when he’s singing, his utterly spectacular percussion falls to the wayside and he’s playing more “stock” than usual. Fortunately, he makes up for it with some utterly mind-bending stick-work on the third track, “Precious Stones.”
Remember what I said about “epic journeys?” Well, track four “Steambreather” is a prime example. Impossibly down-tuned guitars that must have had strings slopping around like cold spaghetti immediately made me realize that my stallion had died and I had to trudge across snowy mountain-tops wearing nothing but boots, a loin-cloth, and a bear-skin cloak. I then finally come across my enemies and observe their behavior before attacking with “Roots Remain” in the calm before the battle and it’s lovely with both 3:4 and 7:8 bridges. At this point, I’m dripping with anticipation to swing that battle axe thanks to the syncopation, but the piano outro reminds me that I need to rest before the revolution.
“Word to the Wise” begins the battle with its swing arcing time-signature switches between 6:8, 7:8, and 4:4. Seriously, if you can’t picture yourself fighting an army in slow-motion to this song (or at the least, holding a floor mop above your head in triumph), you’re an asshole.
Track nine (“Andromeda”) opens with some beautifully dissonant guitar chords that I will probably spend a few weeks trying to dissect and the blast beats are amazing to listen to while making your cat freak out with a laser pointer (trust me, I did it and it was hilarious).
Like most Mastodon albums, there is a concept and storyline that runs through the album with an emotional arc. However, it’s mostly up to you, the listener, to determine what it is. The final track “Jaguar God” (clocking in at almost 8 minutes with a 20-second fade-out of guitar harmonic dissonance) makes you wonder if you’ve been struck down and ascended to Valhalla or realized that you have a new enemy to vanquish.
Yes, I’ve read too many Conan comic books, I’ve used most of the pages from the Book of Revelations as rolling papers, and I still play D&D at the age of 38. But, once again Mastodon have delivered an odyssey laden with plenty of mental imagery and utterly phenomenal musicianship. Close your eyes and listen to it loud. Make up your own story and then choose your own adventure.
Notable Tracks: “Andromeda” | “Steambreather” | “Sultan’s Curse”