Friday, April 7, 2017

album review: 'emperor of sand' by mastodon

I wish I liked Mastodon a lot more than I do.

Now that's a loaded statement to open up a review of a record that's already sparked some controversy among critics, but it's necessary to provide some context here. Suffice to say I came to listen to a lot of Mastodon's material late, and furthermore I came from the more meticulous, prog side of metal, not as much sludge or the hard rock the band has increasingly embraced in order to pull in mainstream appeal. As such, when I revisited their discography again before this review, I came away convinced that I still do like and appreciate this band for their relentless shredding and oblique songwriting and knack for melodic song structures in the face of increasingly complex ideas, but I never found them as captivating as I wanted - a group I respect a lot more than I outright love.

And more than that, the complex, relentlessly visceral and bestial albums I did really like - Leviathan, Blood Mountain, especially Crack The Skye - seemed to be in the opposite direction of Mastodon's current progression. As such, while I was more forgiving of Once More 'Round The Sun than some critics for some stronger hooks and cohesive melodic experimentation, I was concerned that the group would eventually start to hit diminishing returns in simplifying their sound and approach for a mainstream rock audience, especially if the hooks didn't come together as strongly. But hey, it's still Mastodon, and they've won enough goodwill with me to dig in deep, especially if the writing and melodies cam through - did Emperor Of Sand pay off?

I have to be very blunt here: I found this record profoundly frustrating to listen through. Not because I think it's bad - I feel like that's a justification I've been making a lot lately - but because, as a whole, I'm just underwhelmed by what Mastodon put together. And while I'm going to try and avoid comparisons to previous Mastodon projects - this does feel, to some extent, like it's going in a different direction - it's also hard not to feel like this isn't the best step for the band, not aligning with their strengths and leading to a record that just doesn't have the same crunch or power as their best.

And we need to start with the production, where Mastodon again are working with Brendan O'Brien, previously known most to fans as the producer behind Crack The Skye and a host of 90s grunge acts that you all know. And as soon as we start getting into the first few songs, it's hard not to feel like Mastodon are at least trying to emulate some similar tones and textures as those groups, albeit at faster tempos - the bass guitar doesn't have that same depth or rattle, when you can hear it at all, the rhythm guitar doesn't have the same meat in the low end, and when we do get solos, there are more than a few songs where they feel almost like an afterthought, tacked on because we need to hear that progressive side somewhere. Now this isn't inherently a bad idea - hell, on a song like 'Steambreather' I was almost reminded a bit of Alice In Chains in the main guitar tone - but if you're going to tamp back the intensity the hooks and melodies need to be there... but the record isn't mixed to emphasize either. I'll circle back to the vocals, but the first issue is that instead of using bass or heavier riffs to flesh out the low end, they're instead relying on Brann Dailor's drum fills - to the point of putting their increasingly sharp pickups in front of the vocals or actual rhythm guitar, which doesn't help any actual melody stand out. Granted, when they do bring the vocals to the front on 'Show Yourself', it's opposite one of the most flat and generic guitar progressions Mastodon has ever used, but this leads to another problem: song structure. Like it or not, Mastodon are still building their verses and hooks in a more progressive fashion, which means the central choruses can feel underdeveloped or just too short like on 'Word To The Wise' - which would work if this record was taking the chances in production or composition to afford the shifts, and yet increasingly across this record I wasn't hearing it. The progressive pieces we do get, like the cleaner interludes on 'Roots Remain' or the few bars of compression on 'Jaguar God' or especially the bass and phaser-touched interlude on 'Clandestiny', more often than not they feel like detours that feel increasingly out of place with the furious drumwork and riffs that increasingly start to run together without distinctive texture or hooks to tie it all back together.

And I think a part of this does come back to the vocals. With the introduction of more clean singing, the tonal differences between the bandmates have become increasingly prominent, with Brett Hinds' tone being more nasal, Troy Sanders more gruff and capable of roughness - when they bring on Scott Kelly for 'Scorpion Breath' there is good interplay there - and Bran Dailor for the cleanest tones. And here's the thing: I think for what they're trying to do, I've got no issue with the cleaner singing - again, it strikes me as a blown opportunity that they don't have any significant interplay within the record's story, but I'm starting to realize that was probably never going to happen. Where I do take issue is the vocal production, namely how damn inconsistent it is. Sometimes you get the impression they're shoving the vocals to the front regardless of deeper support for something of a hook or an interlude - accented by bells or a more defined melody - or they're drowned out in twisted, overloaded layers that can work for some of their voices to ramp up the cacophony but not all of them. And that's before you add in the backing vocal layers that more often than not feel muddy and oversaturate a mix that frankly has nowhere near the bite and texture to make that swirling mass hit harder.

This takes us to the actual content and thematic arc of the record, which really serves a twofold arc, the first being about an exiled desert wanderer somewhere in central American slowly dying - actually, location is kind of difficult to discern, given references to a sultan, a decidedly Middle Eastern concept, and you get hints of similar melodies in the composition - and the second arc being reflective of people in Mastodon's lives going through chemotherapy and slowly dying of cancer. And you know, on some level I can see the dramatic parallel - in both cases one can feel trapped in circumstances beyond their control as it slowly kills them, leaving them to face mortality on their own and a very real trial of body and mind to survive. Now this desperate descent to cling to life isn't exaclty unfamiliar territory for Mastodon, but the parallel here can't help but feel a little forced at points, especially as the band is much more comfortable with the howling existential wasteland than more grounded drama, but that's presuming the plot remains stable or coherent at all. Once the protagonist finds some vestige of lucidity and a swathe of empty riches in the waste, after somehow surviving some searing trial he then crosses some unspeakable line and faces some mysterious ancient stronghold that transcends time and protects him enough to get a second chance to face some ancient primal force with connections to Aztec mythology... Actually, the more research I did does show a few mythic parallels to the stories of Tezcatlipoca and Chalchihuitlicue, particularly on the flood stories of 'Word to the Wise', but really, that's more conjecture than anything, because I had a hard time making head or tails of this record's story, and any parallels to real world struggles with illness feels like subtext that's even further distorted. So okay, maybe more impressionistic, like previous Mastodon records? Well, maybe, but again, this record seems much more focused on a more accessible, mainstream experience, to the point where much of the language feels more general and less visceral and graphic and blunt, and that makes abstract themes and moods even harder to crystallize. 

Ugh, I feel like I'm overthinking why this doesn't have the same impact for me as previous Mastodon records do, and I think ultimately it circles back to a group that's compromising and trying to water down the elements that otherwise made them interesting, from production to poetry to the delivery. The truth is that a lot of this album really started to blur together for me, riffs and melodic segments picking up some decent texture in moments but rarely coalescing to a killer hook or beyond a great solo. And I do want to stress there are songs I like here: 'Streambreather', 'Ancient Kingdom' felt a little more balanced and structured, I liked the vocal interplay and thicker muscle of 'Scorpion Breath', and despite its structural issues 'Word To The Wise' did bring an impressive amount of shred on the solo. But beyond that, I'm thinking a solid 6/10 and really only a recommendation to hardcore Mastodon fans, and I think many there will be the first to tell you they've put out stronger records. Overall, it's a decent listen, especially if you like this style of rock and metal... but compared to Mastodon at their heights, this doesn't quite reach the top of the pyramid, at least for me.

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