Mastodon’s “Emperor of Sand”: Three Singles Deep

Before we put the first quarter of 2017 in the books, this coming Friday is shaping up to be a hell of a send-off. We’ll be wrapping up the quarter with one of 2017’s biggest blockbuster Metal releases; Mastodon, the critical darlings of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal, the one Metal band other than Deafheaven that hipster Pitchfork readers are allowed to like, is dropping LP number seven.

Emperor of Sand will be the follow-up to 2014’s Once More ‘Round the Sun, a record that found the adventurous band thriving as much within concise songs, simpler structures, and subtle conceptuality as they had thrived with the winding, complex Prog Metal of 2009’s Crack the Skye, the latter which a big chunk of Mastodon’s fans consider to be an apex in the band’s illustrious 17-year career.

We’ve gotten three glimpses into Once More ‘Round the Sun’s successor, in the form of the pre-album singles “Sultan’s Curse”, “Show Yourself”, and “Andromeda”. So far, Emperor of Sand sounds like the logical next step in Mastodon’s discography – these tunes are even more melodic and to-the-point than the ones on their last LP, but they’re still dense; they’re still very musically involved. Of course, these scatterbrained Georgians have never been short on surprises, so I’m not saying jack shit until I get some quality time with the full record. According to drummer Brann Dailor though, Emperor of Sand does have a cohesive theme tying it together, so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

One more thing: I love how the band only released three pre-album singles. In the age of rapid-fire Internet consumption, the mystique of a new record is precious, and unfortunately, i find it constantly eludes us. To put it in perspective: at this time last year, when I reviewed Killswitch Engage’s Incarnate, half the track list was out before I bought the CD on release day. It didn’t hugely impact my enjoyment of the album, but I like being left to speculate; I won’t REALLY know what Emperor of Sand sounds like until Friday. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sultan’s Curse

The album opener and first official leak, “Sultan’s Curse” boasts an irresistibly groovy main riff and raspy but melodic vocal interplay between Troy Sanders, Brent Hinds, and Brann Dailor, whose chemistry is like a seasoned track squad running a relay race. Dailor’s restless skinsmanship is a crucial factor in this song being as engaging as it is – notice how he anchors the main riff during its first and third tail, but flails during its second and fourth, always keeping listeners on their toes. In general, it’s truly amazing how much is PACKED into these four minutes. This song has so much to it, yet the parts flow seamlessly. The apex for me is the bridge at 1:57, with its slightly psychedelic, Sabbath-esque guitars.

Show Yourself

In a way, this song is the “poppiest” Mastodon have ever sounded. But my God is it fucking catchy. During the verses, Brann Dailor’s vocal harmonies are airtight, and the guitars are almost danceable. It makes perfect sense that this one got the video treatment. I will reiterate for the thousandth time: Mastodon’s three-singer thing cannot be overstated – it keeps every second of this track feeling dynamic and fresh. And although I love seeing Mastodon get proggy and weird, the compact structure here is key in this song’s success – get in, get out, no bells and whistles. Prog-heads can cry a bucket of tears.

Andromeda

This track’s incredibly ugly main riff and its loudly mixed accompanying bassline kind of reminds me of Gorguts. It’s certainly a nice contrast to the sugar sweetness of “Show Yourself”. Things also get a bit eerie in the chorus with some harmonic minor guitar leads and Dailor and Sanders’ ghostly vocals. I also enjoy hearing that psychedelic guitar tone from “Sultan’s Curse” make another appearance, and I thought the guitar solo, with its quirky phrasing, was an excellent addition. Another great track with another different flavor. I am so fucking psyched for Friday!

 

September 2016 Album Round Up!

Since I was three years old – to put that in context, since BEFORE the world witnessed Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio bang on the Titanic and her subsequent refusal to share a rather spacious floating door, choosing instead to let him die – this was the first non-Summer month that I have not spent in a classroom. That’s almost 20 years of steady structure tossed out the fucking window. It’s almost surreal, but in the immortal words of Blink-182, “I guess this is growing up.” And growing up meant that in September 2016 I was busier than I have ever been, working and interning for absurd hours, scrambling to find time for quality, in-depth listens of all of these new records, and trying to somehow squeeze out a social life and some gym hours. The whole listening-to-new-music thing worked out reasonably well, although the true release mayhem came RIGHT on September 30th, so I’m still catching my breath. But I’ve got a bunch of great stuff to recommend! Enjoy my ramblings, and hope you’re all looking forward to October as much as I am – it’s gonna be fucking STACKED!

Bad Vibrations – A Day To Remember

This Metalcore/Pop-Punk band’s last effort – 2013’s Common Courtesy – is one of my favorite albums ever. So I didn’t expect Bad Vibrations to meet that high water mark. In the end, I’m walking away feeling positive yet slightly underwhelmed. The first half of this LP is packed with some of ADTR’s best material to date, like “Bullfight”, “Naviety” (showcasing their poppier side), and the title track (showcasing their more aggressive side), but there are a few duds and filler tracks in the latter half (“Turn Off the Radio”, “Forgive and Forget”, “We Got This”) weighing it down. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight – Travis Scott

I was a bit late to the Travis Scott party, so the peculiarly titled Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight is the first time I’m experiencing his new music alongside the rest of the world. Scott’s hugely hyped sophomore full-length is not perfect, but it’s PACKED with bangers, and it’s been my go-to party album for the entire month. Particular highlights include “Coordinate”, “Goosebumps”, “Pick Up the Phone”, and “Through the Late Night”, the latter of which is the best thing Kid Cudi has been involved with in over half a decade. Between Birds and Young Thug’s Jeffery project last month, Hip-Hop is incredibly turnt right now. RECOMMENDED

Winter’s Gate – Insomnium 

I haven’t disliked a single album from these Finnish Melodeath masters, but “Winter’s Gate” is special. It’s a conceptual behemoth that meets the highest of Melodic Death Metal standards without ever getting ahead of itself. Along with Be’Lakor’s excellent Vessels LP this past June, Winter’s Gate proves that this style of Metal is as vital as it ever has been. You might see this one again when the time comes for “Best Albums of 2016” discussions. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Natural Causes – Skylar Grey

For her second album as Skylar Grey, the “Love the Way You Lie” songstress took a bold leap from the cookie cutter Pop of 2013’s Don’t Look Down into something much more spacey and ethereal. I was psyched about the transition and wanted more than anything to be blown away by the whole record, but in reality, I fell in love with a handful of tracks and could take or leave the rest. Here is a full review. RECOMMENDED

Yellowcard – Yellowcard

Even though they’re one of my all-time favorites, Yellowcard’s swansong left me indifferent. There are some flashes of the Yellowcard that I grew up loving, but the track list suffers from what I call “ballad syndrome” – of 11 songs, 5 or 6 of them venture into ballad territory. That’s not ok for a Pop-Punk album, or any album for that matter. These slow cuts aren’t terrible, but it makes for a strange and uneven listen. Rather than going out with a bang or a whimper, Yellowcard went out with a polite wave goodbye. Here is a full review. NOT RECOMMENDED

The Atrocity Exhibition – Danny Brown

On his fourth project, Danny Brown is once again an utterly singular Hip-Hop artist, from his unmistakable delivery, to his slightly avant-garde production, to his eccentric, drug-riddled storytelling. Don’t be fooled by his abrasive persona though; the guy can rap his ass off. Just check the gritty “Lost” or the star-studded “Really Doe”, the latter of which finds Brown holding his own with heavyweights like Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt. On second thought, scratch that “Really Doe” analysis, ‘cause “heavyweight” now describes Danny Brown too – he’s not only at the top of HIS game, he’s one of the most compelling rappers on the planet right now.

Creatures Watching Over the Dead – Charred Walls of the Damned

 Richard Christy, Steve DiGiorgio, Jason Suecof, and Tim “Ripper” Owens fire up their Metal supergroup again for album number three. This is BY FAR my favorite record of theirs. Hearing Ripper’s soaring, melodic vocals over some legitimately heavy riffs is particularly refreshing – I don’t know about you, but I get tired of the same throat-gurgling screams over everything. I love to hear a singer with old school PIPES, and the ex-Judas Priest frontman really brings it here. The melodies don’t stop at Ripper either – the track “Lies” is sent off with an ultra poppy riff and a sugary guitar solo that sounds like a Pop-Punk band got parachuted into a Metal anthem. Elsewhere, shit can get crushingly heavy (“The Soulless”), technically dazzling (Jason Suecof’s harmonized lead in “Tear Me Down”), and even thoughtful (“My Eyes”).The songs aren’t ALWAYS there, but the mastery these veterans exhibit over the genre is a true joy to listen to. RECOMMENDED

The Altar – Banks

Banks sophomore LP is a noticeable improvement over Goddess, her super hyped but slightly underwhelming debut. Plodding moments like “To the Hilt” and “Poltergeist” hurt the track list in its latter stages, but I’ll be damned if there’s aren’t some bonafide Alt-Pop smashes on here. “Gemini Feed” has proven to be a wise choice for a single, and “Trainwreck” continues in a similar vein. “This Is Not About Us” veers more toward the Electro-Pop route, while “Fuck With Myself” contains explicit Hip-Hop nods – the latter a display of swaggering attitude previously absent in Banks’ music. She’s definitely headed in the right direction; in the future, I’d love to see her further explore the edgier side that she began to tap into with The Altar. RECOMMENDED

The Divine Feminine – Mac Miller

Mac Miller’s best album to date is vulnerable, sensual, and loosely conceptual, dealing almost exclusively with love, sex, relationships, and women. Never an MC who could quite carry a full-length on his own, Mac leans on his talented guests with the perfect amount of weight, whether it’s Anderson .Paak on the fun and upbeat “Dang!”, Ty Dolla $ign on the DJ Dahi-produced “Cinderella” (the LP’s best song by far), Kendrick Lamar on the closer “God Is Fair Sexy Nasty”, or his boo thang Ariana Grande on “My Favorite Part”. I am beyond impressed with Mac’s wholehearted commitment to exploring, developing and delivering something totally different from the rest of his catalogue. Love it or hate it, you’re unlikely to hear another Hip-Hop record quite like this one in 2016. RECOMMENDED

Sorceress – Opeth

It’s a crying shame that I haven’t had the time to give this album the full review treatment, but October’s going to be the busiest fucking month of the year and I don’t want to fall behind. It’s only been out for a week, but here are my two cents: if I want Still Life or Blackwater Park Opeth, I can continue to wear out those fucking records to death. I ENCOURAGE stylistic change, as long as the music is up to par. And Sorceress is easily the best of Opeth’s 2010s output – that dramatic, fan-dividing shift in Mikael’s vocal delivery finally feels at home amongst these proggy yet catchy tunes. At the time of the initial transition on 2011’s Heritage, it felt like career suicide, but Sorceress justifies the creative decisions Opeth have made these past few years. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Schmilco – Wilco

Wilco’s tenth album is delivered with the same modest indie spirit that I’ve associated with them since I first heard AM as a 14-year-old. Schmilco is laid back, chill as fuck, and most importantly, it’s folky without those big cheesy pop hooks vacuuming the life out of it (looking at you, Mumford & Sons, how’s it going?). It didn’t knock my world off its axis or anything, but it’s exactly what I anticipated. Can’t be mad at that. RECOMMENDED