Posts Tagged ‘Emperor Of Sand’

It was a bit of an interesting gig, in that I didn’t really want to go due to a mixture of recent bereavement and family visiting that evening and anxiety over finding a strange new venue in an unfamiliar city on a Saturday night when all the drunks and junkies would be roaming the streets, during the busy Office Christmas Party season where even more rowdy people would be out trying to look crazy to have something to talk about at work the next few weeks, as well as having to drive on some roads that have caused me much problems already this month and which have got me so stressed out I’ve actually said aloud ‘the next person to beep me, I’m getting out of the car and telling them, that I’m memorizing their face and if they ever beep me again I’ll follow them home and burn down their house with them in it.’

So, driving in the dark on a terrible road, negative emotions, better things to do with visiting family all already had me thinking I should just stay home and not attend.  Then, when I looked at the setlist of previous gigs in the tour I noticed a lack of a lot of my favourite songs (no Blood & Thunder!) and a too-high percentage of the new album (9 whole songs!). I also, when I bought the tickets initially, had noticed that they’d been doing a six song encore with all the songs they’d ever recorded with guests spots by Neurosis’ Scott Kelly, live, with Scott himself guesting. That seemed cool but I noticed on the previous show when I checked the setlist before going to my own gig that it now said ‘last show with Scott for 2017’ so one of the reasons that influenced me to buy the ticket in the first place was gone.

Mastodon are also a very hit and miss live band. Watch any outdoors show of them on youtube and you can see cracks appear. Watch their early DVD appearances and you can see Brent Hinds really struggle with vocals (that semi-famous version of ‘Capilarian Crest’ from that Slayer tour DVD for example). And while there are also amazing live moments from Mastodon, when I was thinking of reasons not to go and being a big wimp about the city streets and dodgy roads, I forgot about that.

I made a compromise and decided to not wimp out and still go, so I took my visiting guests to Cardiff for a night out, we had a nice meal in a restaurant, they went for drinks and saw the city and its Christmas market and temporary Ferris Wheel and got some drinks while I slipped off to see Mastodon after the food.

The support acts were Russian Circles, an instrumental Post-Metal band who my brother likes but I’ve never checked out, and Red Fang, the fun stoner metal band who have a Baroness and Mastodon sheen to them but also write Queens Of The Stone Age type stuff at times. I made it to the gig timed in such a way as to only see the last two Red Fang songs (and that’s ok, I only have two Red Fang CDs and only like one of em anyway) and I missed Russian Circles altogether (sorry guys… when I lived in Manchester I always walked to the venue early, got in as doors opened and watched all the support acts, but this is a new city, coming in by road, and bla bla bla…).

I’ve seen Mastodon three times before. Twice when their newest album was Blood Mountain, once with Tool where they leaned on their proggier side and played the full ‘Hearts Alive’ (hooray) and once supporting Slayer where they leaned on their more Metal side. I also caught them a few tours later when their latest album was Once More ‘Round The Sun, where they leaned on their more commercial and accessible material. Each version was great. In the Tool show the sound was bad and the vocals almost silent, but otherwise cool. With Slayer was probably the best. The headline ‘Sun show was pretty great but came at a period when I’d sort’ve fallen away from the band and it was actually what pulled me back in. The only downside was some stupid Scottish jerk screamed so loudly directly into my earhole that I had a ringing in my ears for three and a half days solid and I thought I was going to have to go to the doctor’s over it.

I have to admit, when it comes to Mastodon, my favourite albums are the three album stretch from Leviathan (I have a vinyl copy on my wall as decoration) until Crack The Skye. In this period, when it was happening, they were the most important, beloved, can-do-no-wrong band in the world and everything about them was cool and perfect. The next three albums are good too, and pay off really well when you first get them, but don’t quite live up to those previous three really, when you really look at them, in the cold light of day after the excitement has faded. They’re great, but they aren’t important and generation defining and tied up in all sorts of friendship memories and youthful anything-could-happen-next wide eyed wonderment. A lot of my friend group always say ‘they should’ve broken up after Crack The Skye and would’ve had a perfect untarnished legacy.’ (I’m much, much more forgiving of the next three albums than any of them, but even I can’t deny much preferring the previous three.)

So anyway, that’s the background.. On to the show…

So they came on after soundcheck to a warm applause, and launched into the rather odd song choice for an opener of the Crack The Skye late-album deep track ‘The Last Baron,’ (which is awesome in and of itself, but always feels like the second half of the title track and the third part of a suite of it, the title track and ‘Ghost Of Karelia’ and feels sort of unexpected and naked on its own). It was great though. It was a rather big statement of intent of what you could expect from the evening though, the trippier spacier stuff was definitely moved to the forefront.

There was some tasteful lighting and the stage turned from red to green to flashing depending on the tempo or time signature or some hidden logic I was having to much fun to study.

Then came the recent single from the new album, ‘Sultan’s Curse,’ which I didn’t think I liked all that much until I found myself singing along. They played the Crack The Skye single ‘Divinations complete with its surf guitar influenced solo, and then new-album deep cut ‘Ancient Kingdom’ and the lighting and previously not-much-used seven large thin screens surrounding the band started showing running water.

From then on the show started to get really good and I was warmed up and the showmanship started to come out more, the crowd started singing along more, and the screens started showing mental-ass psychedelic visions of evil octopuses, burning horses, snow, hell-scapes, deserts and all sorts.

The previous setlists on this tour had had a full 9 songs from Emperor Of Sand, but they trimmed that down to a more manageable 7 songs for my show, adding in the hits ‘Colony Of Birchmen’ ‘Black Tongue’ and ‘Blood And Thunder’ to the set to balance it out. They also made the very nice decision to play crazy-ass Blood Mountain deep cut ‘Bladecatcher’ which I wasn’t expecting but gladly welcomed, air drumming along to all its twists and turns and teases.

There was an absence of a lot of their hits that night. No ‘Iron Tusk’ no ‘Capilarian Crest,’ no ‘March Of The Fire Ants,’ no ‘The Wolf Is Loose,’ no ‘Crystal Skull’ no ‘Curl Of The Burl’ and no ‘The Motherload.’ They certainly don’t always just play the same songs every tour that’s for sure!

They did a pretty great job without them though. When they initially chucked in the deep cut from ‘Round The Sun, ‘Emerald City’ I found myself thinking, “which one is that?” when they said the name in the introduction, but then quickly found myself singing the chorus loudly along with easily a thousand other people. I didn’t even know I loved that one, but apparently I do. Its never made it into any of my greatest hits playlists or friend recommendations before, but I guess it probably will in future.

They also played my favourite track off of Emperor Of Sand ‘Andromeda’ with its almost Remission-esque noisy barbaric riff. Some of the drums on tracks like ‘Steambreather’ and ‘Roots Remain’ were breathtaking. Brann Dailor is an absolute drum hero up there with Dany Carey and Neil Pert.

Now; Because Mastodon are such an important band to me, all their albums are major life events and are tied to specific periods in my memory forever. Leviathan was around my 16th birthday and was influential to my teenage band and one of the most exciting times I’ve ever had as a music fan (a lot of my early facebook photos are in a Leviathan shirt and I’ve got a vinyl copy on my wall, now and in my last three homes, as decoration). Blood Mountain was the big exciting release all my high school friends were talking about when I left town after high school and what I’d discuss with them when I got back in touch with them any time in the next few years. Crack The Skye was this amazing otherworldly transcendental masterpiece that defined much of my time when I moved to England. The Hunter was the soundtrack to when I worked in Blackpool while reading all the A Song Of Ice And Fire books and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. Once More ‘Round The Sun always reminds me of walking my then girlfriend, now wife, to university in the snow and slipping and sliding along all the ice, and then waiting in the lecture halls I’d gotten to half an hour early for my own classes, just cranking out Mastodon, sitting in cold echoing halls bopping away to ‘Halloween’ and ‘Tread Lightly.’

Emperor Of Sand, however, reminds me of misery. I was listening to it heavily when we lost our first baby, and when I was working horrible soul destroying night shifts with an awful, passive aggressive, demanding and socially maladjusted manager in a horrific ungrateful job where you could work either 14 hours a day day shifts or 11 hours a night night shifts and still be harassed into coming in early so they’d pass inspections or going home every single damn day between 20 and 90 minutes late due to short staffing, and not be thanked for it, and have to come in on two hours notice, or on only five hours sleep, and work in awful dehydrating conditions and have the manager talk to you through the toilet door if you ever actually got the chance to actually go to the toilet and escape work for long enough to piss. That place broke so many labour laws and health and safety rules it was staggering and its a wonder the upper management weren’t all sacked, if not prosecute. But anyway… Nowadays when my life is so much happier and nicer and I’m in an awesome job that I love in a much better city in a much nicer home and everything is a lot better, listening to Emperor Of Sand just bums me out and reminds me of slaving away in such horrible conditions for such a dreadful uncaring company and their demanding, hateful, ungrateful clients and then coming home to bereavement and a lack of sleep.

Hearing those songs live with the cool video screens and all the joyous sing-alongs from the other fans sort of freed them from that association. I just got to listen to and enjoy them as songs, free from all the baggage. It was nice. Liberating.

Which is a good job, since so much of the setlist was from it. Going off Setlist FM, the breakdown was as follows: Emperor Of Sand -7 songs; Crack The Skye – 3 songs; Blood Mountain – 2 songs; Leviathan – 2 songs; Once More ’Round The Sun – 1 song; Remission – 1 song; The Hunter – 1 song.

Oh yeah, did I tell you they played bloody ‘Mother Puncher’ ?! SCORE! Its nice that even though they’re so late in their career they aren’t ignoring Remission (come to think of it, last time I saw them they very unexpectedly dropped ‘Ol Nessie’ into the middle of all the commercial stuff!). I hate fans who act all cool and say they only like Remission, sure, but it is a stunning monstrous album and I’d hate for it to be overlooked or forgotten. I’d love for them to drop a few more nuggets from it in nowadays. Nobody could argue with a bit of ‘Crusher Destroyer’ or ‘Where Strides The Behemoth’ nowadays, surely. Just slipped in nice and tidy among the proggier stuff to raise the energy levels and remind us of heavier times.

Speaking of ‘Mother Puncher’…. good God, the drums on that song! That and the breakdown in the middle of ‘Blood And Thunder’ have some of the most maddeningly-illogical yet crazily-satisfying drums ever.

Overall, I had a pretty great night and the band were great. A vastly different setlist than I’ve ever seen by ’em before, cool interesting visuals, a receptive audience, and I’ve not mentioned it yet but the sound was really clear and well balanced, the guitar solos were cool and Brent played them with a little bit of improvisation, and the vocals were really great. As I’ve said, I’ve went to Mastodon shows were you couldn’t even hear the vocals, I’ve seen Mastodon live footage online were the vocals weren’t so hot performance-wise, and I’ve seen ’em live before or recorded on their Brixton live video for example, with awesome vocals. Tonight was a good night for vocals, and indeed for crowd participation. The audience were dancing, singing, air drumming. I was sat behind the lighting/sound guys and they were dancing in unison at one stage. The whole vibe was very friendly and fun and like we were all in on the group secret.

I might have been skeptical and almost cancelled going to this show, but I’m glad I didn’t. I had a good time, I saw a good show and its given me a renewed appreciation for the new album and helped free it from bad memories.


emperor_of_sand_coverAtlanta Prog Metal legends Mastodon return in 2017 with their seventh proper full-length studio album, Emperor Of Sand. Speaking of returns; frequent collaborator Scott Kelly returns for yet another guest vocal performance and producer Brendan O’Brian returns as well, having last done their fourth album, the 2009 masterpiece, Crack The Skye. Also returning is the concept-album format. Leviathan, Blood Mountain and Crack The Skye had all been story-driven concept albums that also served as a metaphor for the band’s lives and Emperor Of Sand continues that tradition after a break into more traditional territories with The Hunter and Once More Round The Sun.

The concept on this record is of a man being handed down a curse/death sentence and wandering the sands of the desert to his ultimate death and or salvation. The band haven’t been shy in interviews of describing the fact that story serves as a metaphor for cancer and especially guitarist Bill Kelliher’s mother’s death from brain cancer. There’s even a dedication to her cleverly hidden in the artwork on one of the creature’s shields.

When you get told that information before hand, you immediately analyze the lyrics for clues. Is this about a biopsy? Is this about a scan? Does this represent the prognosis? Is this about the stages of grief? Does this represent the loss of cognitive function associated with illnesses of the brain? Is this line about a donation? Is this one about a family dispute? Does this character represent the doctor? Does this one represent cancer itself? …We do know for sure from the documentary that sand represents time. Sometimes it isn’t even so hidden at all; the album ends with the line ‘Its right in front of me, your malignancy.’ It all gives the album such a layer of depth, not unlike Crack The Skye had with Brann’s family tragedy. It feels a bit distasteful going into it so much, but then again if they didn’t want us to it wouldn’t have been released and promoted in such a way as to make it so possible.

Background aside, the main thing that sticks out about this album is the lead guitar. Now, Mastadon have always been musical virtuosos, innovators and masters of distilling broad and extreme influences into a cohesive singular whole, but still, even when we get used to excellence from the musicians, the guitars here are especially strong. There are some really stand up and take notice leads, some very crack a smile solos and some screw up your face and nod riffs on here.

It really is a guitar-centric record. Even with the story, Brann’s superhero drumming, all the bonus keyboards and studio touches, and the team approach to vocals… man those guitarists sure are on damn fine form here.

In terms of direction; this one seems to be an attempt to merge the Crack The Skye formula into the most mainstream moments of the most recent two albums. The first half of the album is all more sing-along, catchy, easily accessible stuff, and the second half drops down the prog. Tracks like ‘Show Yourself’ and ‘Precious Stones’ have radio appeal, then tracks like the magnificent album closer ‘Jaguar God’ are a trippy journey through a dozen speeds, tones and moods with bonkers Robert Fripp-esque guitar noodling meeting metal meeting acoustic meeting big beautiful wailing solos. The middle of ‘Clandestiny’ sounds like it could be on a Yes or Genesis record, something they’ve always talked about but I’ve never heard so litterally before.

With Emperor Of Sand it feels like they’ve taken all the lessons they’ve learned with big vocal melodys, hit appeal and targeting a wider audience, and applied it to the slow-burn, grower, hear something new on every listen nature of Crack The Skye. It doesn’t sound anything like that record, but the second half has the same spirit, ethos or vibe as it did. Its all about the repeat listens, the new discoveries, the changing attitudes. I mean, it doesn’t sound like my favourite album, Leviathan, and that is always an adjustment, but when you get over it, like you do every new release you realize that the band can still be amazing even when they are doing a different style.

On first listen, I wasn’t keen on this album, the next time I wasn’t sure, I felt a bit negatively about this but I was sure one more listen would prove whether there was something good going on here and then from there it built and built for me until I was a bit positive to satisfied and now I’m very impressed. Its got big ideas, its got big ambitions, and its undeniably Mastodon. Some of these songs feel one way, then they hit the halfway mark and morph into something else. There’s all these neat subtle touches in the background (listen in depth to ‘Steam Breather’). There’s such badass little drum parts (hey there, Ancient Kingdom’s midsection!). There’s such sticky vocal parts. From all the singers. They’re working together even better than before, blending better. Its a team approach to vocals and it works really well. Then you get all the different takes on the album. Sit there with the lyric book in an empty room and the album feels one way, listen to it on a sunny walk and its very different again. Listen concentrating on one instrument and it feels like a different record than concentrating on another, or the vocals.

For me; my favourite tracks would have to be ‘Roots Remain,’ especially towards its end which has a Cysquatch feel to it, as well as aforementioned album highlight ‘Jaguar God’ and the most Remission-like track ‘Andromeda’ with its jagged caustic riffs and awesome guest vocals from Brutal Truth’s Kevin Sharp… but hey, if the weather improves I can see it being the singles ‘Show Yourself’ and ‘Sultans Curse.’ Pretty great for an album I initially had a negative impression of, ey?

A grower. An exceeder of expectations. A Mastodon album.