Mastodon have been at the forefront of the prog metal for most of the century so far. Beginning with the brutal “Remission” in 2002 and following it up with a series of critically acclaimed concept albums such as “Leviathan,” a sprawling retelling of Moby Dick, the band shot into the stratosphere of the genre. It was with 2011’s “The Hunter,” that the band shifted their style to a more accessible rock type sound. This trend has continued all the way through to the band’s latest record, “Emperor of Sand,” but while “The Hunter,” and even its follow-up “Once More ‘Round the Sun,” remained interesting and enjoyable in their own right, “Emperor of Sand” may very well be the first real dud of the band’s discography.
“Emperor of Sand” marks the group’s first concept album since 2009’s “Crack the Skye.” During the album’s recording, several members of the band had family members suffering from cancer, and as such, the album’s themes include that of mortality and death. While the band’s struggle, and terrible circumstances are to be empathized with, “Emperor of Sand” features some of the worst, most ham-fisted lyrics they have ever written. Perhaps the worst offenders are “Show Yourself,” a poppy, radio-friendly power jam, and “Precious Stones” whose chorus is trite to the point of bewilderment (“Don’t waste your time/ Don’t let it slip away from you”).
The musicianship on “Emperor of Sand” is easily its strong suit, with some tracks like “Andromeda” and “Sultan’s Curse” which give bright, albeit brief, flashes of the dense musicality that the band is known for. Unfortunately the highlights stop there as the rest of the compositions on the album, while not necessarily terrible, are just plain boring and unmemorable. There’s a frequent feeling that the band has made similar songs before in the past, but much better and more inspired than they sound here.
A band shifting sound shifting their sound is not inherently bad at all, and neither is exploring personal struggle with music. But these can be done so much better than they are here. Mastodon have written some of the best prog metal songs ever, but most of “Emperor of Sand” unfortunately feels like either watered-down retreads, or uninspired cheese.