We made it! We’ve reached the end of our countdown of the Top Albums of 2017. As voted on by our global team of experienced editors, reviewers, photographers and tabulated by fearless Ghost Cult Associate Editor Steve Tovey: we give you our number 1 pick: Mastodon – Emperor of Sand (Reprise).
In the year of our dark lord, 2017, the year after everybody and their mother released new albums in 2016, this was a hella competitive year for top-tier talent and much new blood that invaded our earholes around Ghost Cult HQ. Judging by the way our voting went down, Mastodon capturing our Album Of The Year was neither an upset nor was it a runaway lock the way the last few have been (Gojira in 2016, Ghost in 2015). When Emperor of Sand dropped on the last day of March, it felt like the bar was raised dramatically for new music. Mastodon albums have always been ambitious affairs: heavy on riffs and long on heady concepts. More often than not these ideas work in perfect synchrony as one of the most talented bands of our generation keeps blasting out deep, grandiose albums at a super-human clip. Hell, they had two great releases this year alone, with their recent new EP, Cold Dark Place (also Reprise). Always evolving musically and lyrically, while remaining inherently what made them captivating when they first appeared on the scene almost twenty years ago, this is the reason why they have inspired a legion of die-hard fans.
Beyond merely another concept album in their bullet belts, Emperor of Sand is almost a greatest hits level nod to every past era of the band and the culmination of what came before. Teaming up with uber-producer Brendan O’Brien, who previously helmed the genre-redefining Crack The Skye (Reprise) album that catapulted the band beyond the underground, you expected it to be at least very good. From the outright heaviness of lead track ‘Sultan’s Curse’, the raucous ‘Precious Stones’, the brusk and catchy ‘Clandestiny’, this album is much more in your face than 2014’s Once More Around The Sun. Sure, there were “hits” such as ‘Show Yourself’, ‘Steambreather’, and ‘Roots Remain’ but top to bottom there are no weaknesses on this release. It’s just rougher around the edges and rocks a lot more than their recent output. It feels so good to hear them play to their strengths, which are faster tempos, inventive riff-making, and soul-wrenching vocals.
Of course, the production is immaculate. From shimmering clean guitars to meaty bass tones, intricate percussion, searing solos, gorgeous vocal harmonies; everything sits perfectly in the mix, never wasting perfect tones or burying performances. The proggy goodness of most of the tracks also don’t skimp sonically or emotionally either. Plus, there is some deliciously weird shit going on with Vocorders, old synth patches, and other bizarre vintage gear goodness that an O’Brien produced album brings to the table. “Fifth member” Scott Kelly (Neurosis) and Kevin Sharp (Lock-Up, Primate, ex-Brutal Truth) also make excellent contributions.
On top of all of this is the concept of Emperor of Sand. The band openly discussed the themes of love, fear of loss, deaths and near deaths of loved ones, the eventual struggle and release that comes with this stresses of this mortal coil. This guided the experience for the listener in a thread woven through every track, and nowhere more potent than on the tear-producing final song, ‘Jaguar God’. On top of the brilliant writing, it is a quintessential Mastodon song, with every element and member of the band playing an equal, stunning part.
To sum it all up, Metal Mark put it best in his 9/10 review of the album at the time of its release:
“Mastodon‘s Emperor Of Sand is, not only another instant classic to add their already impressive catalog, but a showcase of the band’s maturity and brilliance as songwriters. Musically, everything you’ve ever loved about this band is there, and then some. Lyrically, I don’t know if they’ve done a better job before. The theme was very personal to them, and I think they opened up more than they ever have in the past. For a diehard fan like me, that makes the record that much more real. This album is one of the most intense and emotional listens I’ve heard in a while, and I know this may shock some people, but I think it’s their best record since 2009’s Crack the Skye. It’s that damn good.”