CD Review: “Emperor of Sand” by Mastodon

Emperor of Sand is a chrysalis of an album. Like Crack the Skye before it, it’s a harbinger of a new sound. Not that Mastodon ever really stops tinkering with its sound, but the band’s seventh album gives every indication that it’s ready to shed the last of its metal cocoon and fully emerge as a psychedelic, hard rock band. But there’s still plenty of metal to shed.

Like many Mastodon albums, Emperor of Sand is a concept album. It tells the story of a man condemned by a sultan to die in the desert, which is an allegory for facing cancer and the emotions one deals with when learning he or she is going to die. The desert imagery coupled with the inevitability of death is a little reminiscent of “Ozymandias” if the old king knew what was coming.

Sonically, the album follows the trend toward hard rock established on The Hunter and Once More ‘Round the Sun, but some of the softer dalliances are jarring. The single “Show Yourself” has an unusually radio friendly pop aesthetic that may put off longtime fans. It lacks the proggy layers of a typical Mastodon song and the absence of hard edges makes the track feel flat at first blush. But to its credit, “Show Yourself” is an incurable ear worm. Lines like, “You’re not safe as far as I can tell, and I can tell,” burrow deep. It’s the song you’ll catch yourself humming days later. However, “Show Yourself” is something of an outlier. There are moments, flashes, in songs like “Precious Stones” and “Steambreather” that reflect a similar commercial gleam, but as a whole, there’s not another song like “Show Yourself” on Emperor of Sand.

Mirroring the journey from denial to acceptance, the songs get heavier and angrier making for some of the heaviest songs Mastodon has produced in the last eight years. Brann Dailor’s clean vocals dominate the early half of the album, but increasingly give way to Troy Sanders’ growls. Sanders’ harsher vocal are further anchored by guest appearances from Neurosis’ Scott Kelly and Brutal Truth’s Kevin Sharp on the final tracks.

Emperor of Sand hits a sweet spot mid-way through with a trilogy of songs (“Word to the Wise,” “Ancient Kingdom” and “Clandestiny”) that hit an epic pitch, granting a sense of grandeur in the face of a feeble and fearful passing. It’s a sad album and an angry one. One that refuses to go peacefully and fights it out to the end. Something familiar is fading out on this album, but something new and (hopefully) interesting will follow.

Mastodon is currently on tour and you can catch them with Russian Circles and Eagles of Death Metal in Birmingham, AL on April 28th at Iron City. You can find tickets here and a copy of the new album comes with every pair of tickets purchased online.

 

Live Review: Neurosis at The Masquerade

Neurosis is a band best described as a “musician’s band.” It isn’t the sort of band that ever got a lot of radio play. It never filled arenas and, even after 30 years, most of the band members still have day jobs. This is the band that other metal bands come to see. This is the band that inspired the other bands and grandfathered half a dozen metal sub-genres. This is the band that true metal devotees travel from all corners to come see.

Neurosis is also a band that does not tour very frequently. The common business model for most bands is to release an album and then tour, tour, tour in support. But aside from the families and the day jobs, the members of Neurosis also own a record label and perform in various side projects. Neurosis doesn’t tour every time a record is released, it tours when the members have time to tour. All this is to say that seeing Neurosis, especially on its 30th anniversary, is the sort of show that fans will share stories about for years to come, like hippies reminiscing about seeing the Dead play The Fillmore.

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The (unfortunately soon to be closed) Masquerade was packed for the show. Even as opening band, Sumac, took the stage, an impressive number of fans were already milling around the venue. Sumac played loud and slow in typical sludge fashion (one of the sub-genres you can thank Neurosis for), but they were largely forgettable. Perhaps it was just a bad night for the band. Sumac hit all the right notes but its members felt like they were just going through the motions, making for an unenthusiastic set. Faced with such a lackluster performance, most of the audience decided to chat or check out the merch table.

The second act, Brothers of the Sonic Cloth (or BotSC), was able to garner more passion from the crowd. The band is the new project of Tad Doyle of TAD fame, a name likely only familiar to the grungiest of 90s kids. The new band has little in common with its predecessor. Doyle’s Brothers is loud, growling and experimental, like a rabid, angry seas approach to post metal (yet another Neurosis-inspired sub-genre). BotSC played with a fire that was missing from the Sumac set and the audience reaction showed. Despite the slow, droning tempo of the music, the band brought a lot of energy to the stage, creating the perfect lead up to Neurosis’ set.

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At the very least, Neurosis is always proficient and workmen-like in its performances, there’s a standard of quality you can always expect to receive even on an off night. But the show at The Masquerade was something definitely special. The band opened with the relatively soft “A Sun that Never Sets,” but it was delivered with an incredible amount of force. The band’s presence on stage was intense. The audience swayed hypnotically as waves of sound crashed against their guts and washed over them. There were no theatrics save for some colored lights. There was nothing between the band and the audience, but the music.

The members of Atlanta’s own Mastodon were in the crowd, showing up just after Sumac started its set. Neurosis’ guitarist/vocalist Scott Kelly has appeared on Mastodon’s last five albums, so it was no surprise that the band would come out to see a friend play on its home turf. But Mastodon wasn’t backstage or in any special VIP section (not that The Masquerade has a VIP section), Mastodon sat shoulder-to-shoulder with the other fans watching the show.

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Neurosis played a 90-minute set, a strong mix of all its best material. Nothing unevenly weighted in support of a new album. Toward the close of the set, the lights went out and came back up to reveal two sets of toms at the front of the stage. Kelly and guitarist/vocalist/elementary schoolteacher Steve Von Till began pounding out the rhythm to “Through Silver in Blood.” It was a perfect cap to the night. There was no encore, but the audience didn’t leave wanting one. Neurosis provided everything a fan could have asked for. Neurosis is a band that is always worth your time, but this tour in particular should not be missed.