Album Review – Mastodon / Cold Dark Place EP (2017)

Fill your ears with more of the dark, classy and crisp music by one of the biggest names of contemporary metal as their anticipated Christmas gift for you.

Three songs recorded during the sessions for their 2014 album Once More ‘Round the Sun, and another song recorded during the Emperor of Sand sessions in 2017. That was the anticipated Christmas gift American Progressive/Sludge Metal act Mastodon gave us all metalheads by the end of September, when they released a gloomy (and somehow charming) EP titled Cold Dark Place. Displaying an obscure and totally fantastic artwork by British illustrator Richey Beckett, the EP comprised of the songs “North Side Star”, “Blue Walsh” and “Cold Dark Place” (from the Once More ‘Round the Sun sessions) and “Toe to Toes” (from the Emperor of Sand sessions) presents to the listener a more melancholic and introspective side of Mastodon, but still bringing all the dexterity and characteristic punch delivered by the talented Brent Hinds, Bill Kelliher, Troy Sanders and Brann Dailor.

In one of his interviews about the EP, Bill commented that “When we recorded ‘Once More ‘Round The Sun’, three of the four songs were songs that Brent had mostly written. We all kind of arrange everything together as a band, but they were very heavily Brent songs; he wrote the music for ’em and Brann wrote the lyrics, and the rest of us played on it. And I think with ‘Once More ‘Round The Sun’, we had, like, 15, 16 songs, and we’re, like… Anything over an hour or… 52 minutes is, like, our cutoff time with records; we don’t wanna make records any longer than that. So what we thought was these songs, they kind of sound like they belong together; they don’t exactly sound like they’d go on ‘Once More ‘Round The Sun’. ‘Why don’t we take those and put them out as an EP later on down the road?’ We didn’t feel like they were completely finished or mixed or whatever. We wanted to kind of… We didn’t wanna rush it. So, ‘Let’s just wait. And we’ll put those out at a later time.’ The song ‘Toe To Toes’ was from the ‘Emperor Of Sand’ sessions. And I’m glad we didn’t put it on that record, ’cause that record’s great — it’s great the way it is. I mean, it could have maybe been better with that song on it, but it’s cool to take that song and add it to the ‘Cold Dark Place’ EP.”

Peace and melancholy permeate the air in the first track of the EP, North Side Star, with beautiful guitar lines by both Bill and Brent leading the musicality, while Brann is precise with his smooth but impactful drumming. Moreover, its vocal lines also display a whimsical sense of sadness, with the music growing in intensity and speed halfway through it, showcasing amazing guitar solos and an electrifying vibe. Then we have Blue Walsh, a song that follows a similar dark pattern as the opening track, also bringing their trademark progressiveness and the multi-layered vocal wall built by all band members. In other words, this is an interesting and gentle journey through the realms of Progressive Metal where Mastodon once again captivate us all with their amazing lyrics (“As we hang from the vine, / we swam on the thin red line. / I’m asleep in the deep, / asleep in the dark black sea. / I call out your name, / all I hear is the pouring rain. / When you came into view, / I realize it’s not you.”).

The insanely good Toe to Toes has such a great feel and pace, with the claps added to the song turning it into something very special for us fans of modern heavy music, you’ll catch yourself clapping your hands together with the band without a shadow of a doubt, not to mention how fantastic what they all do with their vocal pieces is, in special Troy who has a beyond passionate vocal performance complemented by his own powerful bass lines and the song’s upbeat vibe. It’s by far my favorite of the EP, and I’m sure it will become a fan-favorite during their live concerts (if they play anything from the EP in their setlist, of course). And in the closing tune, the title-track Cold Dark Place, a semi-acoustic, introspective composition that presents a darker-than-ever Mastodon, you can feel sorrow and darkness flowing from its cryptic lyrics (“You left my heart, / in some cold dark place, / where your love grows on a vine, / and I see it all the time.”). This song might sound very light compared to their usual sound, but it exhales heaviness and depth, ending with a superb guitar solo as the icing on the cake.

In summary, 2017 was definitely the year of Mastodon. After the superb Emperor of Sand, they still had an ace in the hole with Cold Dark Place, making all their fans even happier than before because, as you know, when you like a band a lot there’s never enough of that band for your ears, right? Now just go complete your collection of Mastodon albums by purchasing Cold Dark Place through your favorite music service, stay tuned for their live concerts as they might pay a visit to your city real soon, and keep enjoying the stylish and crisp music by one of the biggest names of contemporary metal.

Best moments of the album: Toe to Toes.

Worst moments of the album: None.

Released in 2017 Reprise Records

Track listing
1. North Side Star 6:09
2. Blue Walsh 5:11
3. Toe to Toes 4:28
4. Cold Dark Place 5:58

Band members
Brent Hinds – lead guitar, lead and backing vocals, claps
Bill Kelliher – rhythm guitar, backing vocals, claps
Troy Sanders – bass guitar, lead and backing vocals, claps
Brann Dailor – drums, percussion, claps

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Album Review – Mastodon / Emperor of Sand (2017)

Follow the inspirational story of a desert wanderer who has been handed a death sentence in the brand new excellent album by the trailblazers of Progressive and Sludge Metal.

Anything I say about the music by American Progressive/Sludge Metal trailblazers Mastodon won’t be enough to describe the amount of madness, intricacy and feeling flowing from the instruments from this unique Atlanta-based quartet. Now with the fantastic Emperor of Sand, the seventh studio album in their remarkable career, Troy Sanders (bass), Brent Hinds (guitar), Bill Kelliher (guitar) and Brann Dailor (drums) add an extra layer of complexity to their music by revolving the entire album around the concepts of death and survival, inspired by experiences they had when members of their families and friends were recently diagnosed with cancer.

Featuring a beautiful artwork by Alan Brown (Medusawolf), the concept and story in Emperor of Sand follows a desert wanderer who has been handed a death sentence. “At the end of the story, the person simultaneously dies and is saved,” said Brann. “It’s about going through cancer, going through chemotherapy and all the things associated with that. I didn’t want to be literal about it. But it’s all in there. You can read between the lines.” Troy also had a few words to share about the whole concept behind Emperor of Sand. “We’re reflecting on mortality,” mentioned Troy. “To that end, the album ties into our entire discography. It’s 17 years in the making, but it’s also a direct reaction to the last two years. We tend to draw inspiration from very real things in our lives.”

Percussion sounds ignite pure heaviness in the form of music, titled Sultan’s Curse, where it’s impressive to see how those four guys can sound so polished and raw at the same time in a perfect fusion of Progressive and Sludge Metal. Furthermore, not only Brann has a superb performance on drums, but their already famous rotation of vocals only makes things even more entertaining. Despite sounding a bit too commercial at first, Show Yourself is a damn good song, being electrified and upbeat with the awesome vocals by Brann leading the musicality, while Brent and Bill deliver classic, sharp riffs and solos. In addition, if you want to see how awesome this tune sounds live, simply watch this excellent video of the band performing it at Jimmy Kimmel Live. Precious Stones is the type of song fans will love to see them playing live, offering another high-speed metallic voyage and showcasing more of their beautiful guitar lines and a rumbling performance by the unstoppable Troy on bass; whereas Steambreather starts with a dark, low-tuned sonority thanks to the guitars and bass sounds, keeping a blackened aura throughout the whole song but with faster passages to maintain the overall result very interesting (not to mention the once again excellent vocals from start to finish).

The next track, named Roots Remain, sounds heavier than all previous songs, with Brann smashing his drums while Troy fires his more aggressive vocals, also providing tons of progressiveness flowing from all instruments in a display of classy and modern Sludge Metal with hints of Groove Metal. In my humble opinion, Word to the Wise is the best of all songs in Emperor of Sand, with the poetic lyrics emanating from the harsh vocals by Troy matching the music flawlessly (“Diamond in the wishing well / Fallen underneath its spell / Save me from the wicked ways / Pulling me with all its weight”). Moreover, I love when they speed up their music without losing their progressive touch, maintaining a beautiful pace while at the same time firing some flammable guitar solos. Ancient Kingdom is another composition with a solid and intricate instrumental supporting the amazing vocal work done by all band members, and what Brann does with his beats is like a lecture in drum playing; followed by Clandestiny, which to my ears sounds like a less commercial and consequently heavier version of “Show Yourself”. It’s one of the songs with the strongest Progressive Metal base of all, and it’s impossible not to feel its energy flowing inside your mind.

With guest musician Kevin Sharp of Brutal Truth on vocals, Andromeda, a great tune to break your neck headbanging, also presents a darker side of Mastodon. Brann is absolutely on fire throughout the whole album and it couldn’t be different in this amazing chant, which makes me wonder how powerful it should sound during their live concerts. And featuring another guest vocalist, this time Scott Kelly of Neurosis, we have Scorpion Breath, the second to last track of the album, being very rhythmic with the bass lines by Troy bringing thunder to the musicality, while the guitars by Brent and Bill will cut your skin like a razor-edged blade. Last but not least, if someone asked me to summarize the music by Mastodon in two words, those would definitely be Jaguar God. This is a complex, detailed and very creative creation by the band, presenting amazing guitar riffs and solos, an intricate and groovy drumming, smoother passages, and beyond whimsical lyrics (“Terrestial fire, ascending from underground / Godspeed divine, so we control our mound / Shape shifter, spirits whisper / Guide me through this black sorcery”), not to mention that when the music gets really heavy, it becomes the best Progressive Metal you can think of.

I personally recommend that before (or maybe after) listening to the album in its entirety you go check the band’s outstanding series of videos on YouTube titled The Making of Emperor of Sand, as those will make a lot of difference to your own view of the music found in Emperor of Sand, giving additional details and even new meanings to what you think you know about Mastodon. You can also check what the band is up to at their official Facebook page, and get ready for their always fun visit to your city in a not-so-distant future. Some will say Emperor of Sand is their strongest work to date, and some that the band lost their touch, just like what happens with every renowned band nowadays. All I know is that Emperor of Sand is a bold, cohesive and inspirational metal album, and that it will hit you hard no matter what, proving Mastodon are not among the biggest and most influential names in contemporary heavy music in vain.

Best moments of the album: Sultan’s Curse, Precious Stones, Word to the Wise and Jaguar God.

Worst moments of the album: None.

Released in 2017 Reprise Records

Track listing
1. Sultan’s Curse 4:09
2. Show Yourself 3:03
3. Precious Stones 3:46
4. Steambreather 5:03
5. Roots Remain 6:28
6. Word to the Wise 4:00
7. Ancient Kingdom 4:54
8. Clandestiny 4:28
9. Andromeda (feat. Kevin Sharp) 4:05
10. Scorpion Breath (feat. Scott Kelly) 3:19
11. Jaguar God 7:56

Band members
Brent Hinds – lead guitar, lead and backing vocals
Bill Kelliher – rhythm guitar, backing vocals
Troy Sanders – bass guitar, lead and backing vocals
Brann Dailor – drums, percussion, lead and backing vocals, bass on “Jaguar God” intro 

Guest musicians
Kevin Sharp – additional vocals on “Andromeda”
Scott Kelly – additional vocals on “Scorpion Breath”
Mike Keneally – keyboards