In the lifespan of every successful band there exists a point at which the band must decide whether to stay within their niche or branch out into the mainstream, essentially “selling out.” Mastodon seems to have chosen the latter, though the changes didn’t come all at once. Their discography displays incremental shifts from the grimy sludge metal of early efforts Remission and Leviathan to The Hunter, which showed signs of Mastodon’s initial change in sound, to Once More ‘Round the Sun, a mopey hard rock album posing as progressive metal. Emperor of the Sand continues this trend, proving that the law of diminishing returns applies to Mastodon as much as it does economics.
The problem isn’t necessarily that Mastodon “sold out.” Metallica went multiple times platinum for every album they released in the 1980s, but they still managed to craft a bona fide genre classic every time. Mastodon, unfortunately, has been unable to do for sludge metal what Metallica did for thrash. Emperor of Sand is billed as a progressive rock album by people who don’t know the meaning of the word “progressive.” After being casually applied to every band that decides to smooth down its edges to reach a wider audience, the term “progressive metal” has become meaningless, now used to describe anything vaguely in the realm of metal that doesn’t rely entirely on traditional metal sounds.
In truth, there’s nothing progressive about Emperor of Sand, nothing innovative or forward-thinking or even remotely experimental. Mastodon draws heavily on the music of alternative metal bands like Avenged Sevenfold—who thrived commercially on the intersection of traditional heavy metal and hard alternative rock—but instead of finding inspiration in those acts, Mastodon outright lifts their template. In a career marked by the use of multiple lead vocalists, Emperor of Sand renders that distinction moot with songs like “Show Yourself,” on which Troy Sanders and Brann Dailor conform to the exact same generic alt-metal croon. It’s all in the service of adhering to formula, and Mastodon does it too well.
That’s not to say that Emperor of Sand was outright doomed. It’s clear here that Mastodon hasn’t lost their technical proficiency even as they softened their sound, and the scope of their songwriting, which once again centers itself around a single story, hasn’t waned. Clean vocals aren’t inherently a liability, nor are the more melodic riffs characterizing alternative metal. Unfortunately, Mastodon neglects to use these elements in any meaningful or unique way. Occasionally, the band ventures outside of their genre cave; the buzzing, robotic backing vocals on “Clandestiny” are vaguely reminiscent of the severely warped and warbled squeals on “Bladecatcher” (from the band’s third album Blood Mountain) in their audacity. “Scorpion Breath,” meanwhile, features a thrash influence in both the galloping guitar riffs and the guest vocals by Scott Kelly of the hardcore punk and avant-garde metal outfit Neurosis.
Still, this off-brand of “progressive metal” is nothing that Opeth—a progressive death metal band that unfortunately followed the same career trajectory as Mastodon—didn’t already bleed dry years ago, and to marginally better effect. On a technical level, Emperor of Sand is a perfectly fine collection of tracks, but at their best, Mastodon would never have settled for “perfectly fine.” It, in addition to Once More ‘Round the Sun, is a clear display of the band’s abating imagination in stark contrast to their ostensibly inflating desire to be featured on Fuse. Above all else, and perhaps most egregious, Emperor of Sand is a compromise—and there’s nothing less metal than compromise.