It's hard to pin down exactly when it happened, but at some point between 2004's brutal 'Leviathan' and 2011's groove-heavy 'The Hunter' Atlanta-spawned riff titans Mastodon underwent an irreversible shift of identity. No longer were they a simple metal band playing for metal audiences... Instead they became a metal band playing for the world. Thanks to their knack for building mind-bending towers of prog frippery on top of solid, hook-laden foundations, Mastodon now stand as the preeminent metal gateway drug any novice should sample before moving on to harder hits such as Neurosis or Gojira.
However, like every band to grow away from their roots, the bearded quartet have shed a swathe of their less open-minded fans in the process. To one time disciples of their 'Lifesblood EP' and 2002 debut 'Remission', Mastodon are heretics, watering down their intensity to appease 'normies' and trading the sledgehammer attack of classic calling cards like 'Blood and Thunder' for the crowd-pleasing lift 'Curl Of The Burl' and 'Ember City'. The less closed-minded of us have welcomed their non-stop reinvention, not to mention the ever-improving voices of bassist Troy Sanders, guitarist Brent Hinds and drummer Brann Dailor.
But there are occasions when being a Mastodon modernist means being a Mastodon apologist. Sadly new album 'Emperor of Sand' is more guilty of this than its comparatively watertight predecessors 'The Hunter' and 'Once More Round The Sun'. Things start strongly with 'Sultan's Curse', which might be Mastodon by numbers but boasts a rollicking rhythm and inspired second half that will grant it a healthy shelf life. It's straight after this that things plunge downhill as a serious contender for the title of 'Worst Mastodon Song Ever' kicks in. Seemingly salvaged from a joke at the Foo Fighters' behalf, 'Show Yourself' confirms all the misgivings that the haters have fired at them in recent years. Its cynical commerciality makes the twerk-heavy video for 2014's 'The Motherlode' look like Tool's 'Prison Sex'. The best part of the song is Hinds' fluttering guitar solo, but even that sounds like it's attempting to break free the cesspool of a track it’s been mired in.
If Mastodon really felt that they had to include this undercooked slice of mediocrity they could have at least followed it up with a more muscular palate cleanser than the pleasant (but forgettable) mid-tempo rocker 'Precious Stones'. Both tracks should have pushed back to the latter half of the album in favour of the bruising 'Steambreather', on which well-moustachioed rhythm guitarist Bill Kelleher cranks out a cracker of a central riff (which oddly resembles a beefed-up version of Sum 41's 'Fat Lip'), from the depths of which Hinds' gargantuan lead guitar breaches like a humpback whale. More than anything else on 'Emperor of Sand', this track proves that Mastodon can still startle and innovate while belting out airwave-ready harmonised choruses.
All too often 'Emperor Of Sand' lacks an identity of its own. Strangely this is most evident when its creators attempt to placate their older fans. Tracks like 'Andromeda' and 'Scorpion's Breath', on which the band try far too hard to be heavy enough for regular guest singer Scott Kelly of Neurosis, hark back to 2006's schizophrenic 'Blood Mountain'. Though this isn't a negative thing in and of itself, Mastodon have never been ones to retreat and retread old ground. The half-hearted attempt at an album concept (man gets cancer, walks through desert) and decision to bring back on board Brendan O'Brien, producer of their magnum opus 'Crack of the Skye', bear testament to the fact that, for the first time in their career, Mastodon aren't confident in their ability to forge a new path for themselves.
Words: Josh Gray
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