Over the past 17 years, Atlanta prog-metal heroes Mastodon have addressed tragic fact and wild fantasy, and have turned both into cinematic voyages. Their second full-length, 2004’s Leviathan, was a turbulent concept album based on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Two years later, they followed with the equally aggressive Blood Mountain, a tale about warriors encountering various nefarious creatures that symbolized the obstacles the band faced during its ascent.
With lyrical deviations came a structural metamorphosis. While the band’s first three albums were fierce and unrelenting, filled with thrashy guitar riffs, howling vocals, and hammering beats, their 2009 disc Crack the Skye was a proggy-psychedelic concept record heavily influenced by guitarist and vocalist Brent Hinds’s near-fatal experience after the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. When Hinds was swinging his T-shirt over his head in drunken celebration, he accidentally thwacked another artist, who sucker-punched him, sending him backwards onto the pavement and causing his head to crack open. Hinds suffered a brain hemorrhage and was unconscious for days. The dreams he had while he was out informed Crack the Skye, which was named after drummer/lyricist Brann Dailor’s sister, who killed herself in 1990.
“We tend to draw from life’s experiences over the course of time and since the previous album cycle,” says bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders, who co-formed the band in 2000 with the same musicians who are on the band’s new record, Emperor of Sand: Hinds, Dailor, and rhythm guitarist Bill Kelliher. “That way, the music is authentic and natural. I love that approach, because it’s not perfectly put together for any other reason except that it comes from us and it’s an honest expression of what we were feeling.”
In early 2016, as the members of Mastodon prepared to create the follow-up to their sixth album, 2014’s Once More ‘Round the Sun, three of the four members were in a bleak place. Dailor’s mom, who has suffered from poor health for years, was undergoing chemotherapy; Kelliher’s mother had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor that eventually killed her; and Sanders’s wife was battling breast cancer.
For Dailor and Kelliher, getting away from reality to spend a few hours playing music was like primal scream therapy. The two musicians worked on new material in Kelliher’s basement, and the guitarist was more prolific than ever. He came up with a batch of diverse ideas for song rhythms, which Dailor complimented with an array of complex beats. From one song to the next, the music unraveled like a journey, expressing a variety of styles, including bruising metal, circuitous prog, and poppy hard rock. Compared to Mastodon’s other albums, Emperor of Sand is most reminiscent of the hairpin twists and mind-bending turns of Crack the Skye, only with shorter songs. There’s even a surreal, fully fleshed-out concept.
The album’s story is about a man who’s exiled by a tyrannical sultan and escapes into the desert. As he suffers deadly heat and severe dehydration — a metaphor for a patient undergoing radiation treatments — he stumbles across various bizarre individuals, each of whom symbolizes a different facets of the battle against cancer, from surgical procedures and treatment methods to the promise of miracle cures, the hope for recovery, and the acceptance of death.
“It’s a pretty dark record that reflects the shock, pain and grief we were all experiencing,” Sanders tells Yahoo Music. “Bill’s mother died of brain cancer last year. It just came up and hit her, and we watched this hideous and horrible disease take a beautiful and smart woman away and it was horrible to see. It’s dark and f***ing evil. Stealth diseases coursing through your veins make a lot of people angry, and I’m one of ‘em. So we channeled this darkness into some sort of art to try to find a shred of light there.”
While Dailor and Kelliher got a jump on writing Emperor of Sand, Sanders was stuck at home tending to his wife, who was undergoing operations and taking medications that left her weak and debilitated.
“The whole situation f***ed-up our world for a year and a half,” he said. “I was doing things to be a good father and husband. And the whole time my wife was the most courageous and brave woman I’ve ever been friends with. She’s in a much better spot today than she has been for the past year and a half. But it’s a slow process, and certain treatments take you down to near-death before they can rebuild you back up to life.”
Since he was dealing with his wife’s care and treatment, Sanders missed the songwriting sessions for Emperor of Sand and showed up at the studio two weeks into the recording. Channeling all the frustration and helplessness he felt, Sanders quickly locked into a groove and tracked his bass parts. Then he helped Dailor finish the lyrics and vocals.
“As we were penning lyrics for the songs, it became obvious that we had a lot to say about this and how we’re all affected by the therapies we had, all experienced and the damaged state of our loved ones and the scariness and the time involved and the time left and all the open-ended questions,” he says. “That was all spewing from us from a lyrical perspective. And Brann was able to take all this and bring it to another level to create a story.”
While cancer is the underlying theme of Emperor of Sand, notions of mortality and time also weighed heavily on the band as they worked, and affected the tone and composition of the record.
“We were all having those questions: ‘How much time is left? Do we have time to make this record for our loved ones?’” Sanders says. “The Emperor of Sand is the cancer — that taker of time. That’s the f***ing evil emperor. If your life is the hourglass, it’s in his palm.”
Sanders takes a moment to compose himself, then continues. “When you’re learning about a cancer diagnosis, usually the first question you have is, ‘What kind of timeframe are we looking at? Did we catch this in time?’ And then you watch the decline of a person from perfect health to death in a very short period of time. Besides being horrific to witness, it’s hard to wrap your head around how this all transpired so fast.”
Instead of sinking into a state of depressed inactivity, Mastodon made the most of their time at the Quarry Studio, a facility in Kennesaw, Georgia, about 25 miles north of the band’s hometown of Atlanta. They worked there throughout October with producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots), who had produced the majestic Crack the Skye.
“We were so ready to go when we entered the studio,” Sanders says. “And that preparedness really paid off, because we just blasted through the songs and didn’t have to spend a lot of time fine-tuning anything. Brendan works really quickly and helped keep us motivated, too. We weren’t just lazy, sitting around going, ‘OK, I’ll do another take tomorrow.’ He just kept us chugging along and it went swimmingly. There were no hiccups at all. The songs and creative juices were all on 10 for this record.”
When Mastodon finished in the studio, they mixed Emperor of Sand at Henson Recording Studio in Los Angeles. Soon after, they began rehearsals for their upcoming tour with Eagles of Death Metal, which launches April 14. Before then, they’ll appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live on April 3.
“The late-night shows are interesting because you’re playing live, but it’s the only time the audience in front of you is truly who you’re not playing for,” Sanders explains. “You are playing for the cameras. There are 300 people seated who are on vacation from Oklahoma and Idaho and Upstate New York. But they’re there to see whatever the talk show is. They have the tickets and a lot of times they don’t know who the musical guest is. They’re not interested in you as a band and they don’t know your history and career. So that’s a little odd, but it’s great exposure and I’m glad we’ve been able to do it a few times. I want as many people as possible to be aware of our band.”
To that end, Mastodon have split their time between playing headline shows and opening for bigger bands, including Metallica, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Tool; they’ve also played on nine Slayer tours. In addition, Mastodon welcome the opportunity to play non-metal bills and festivals.
“When we jump on a Bonnaroo, for example, or festivals that are just as diverse, we love it because the people there are usually open-minded music fans and we have the opportunity to maybe turn some of them onto something they wouldn’t have known they’d like. And it’s fun because there’s like, Ice Cube, Paul McCartney, Mastodon, and Die Antwoord all playing to the same people.”
Between the time Mastodon finished mastering Emperor of Sand and its March 31 release date, Sanders has been just a bit fidgety. He was excited when the first single, the blazing, riff-heavy “Sultan’s Curse,” dropped Jan. 27, and stoked that the second single, the simple, poppy “Show Yourself,” was picked up by numerous radio stations. A little over a month later, “Andromeda” came out, but those are only a taster of the multifaceted album. There are another eight songs he’s been itching for fans to hear.
“Like every record we’ve done, we’re very excited for it to be birthed into the world and let everyone that gives a damn have a chance to listen,” he says. “The whole gestation period between recording and releasing is always so frustrating. We’re not a singles band. We still believe in the idea of having full albums that work as a whole. So for the past few months I’ve been like, ‘OK, let’s get the damn thing out already. Time is of the essence. Let’s not waste time.’ That’s the real essence of the record: Do the most you can with the time that you have. But I can wait just a little longer, because I know there are gonna be a handful of people on this earth that are deeply moved by what we’ve done and that energy will come back to us, and that’s a beautiful thing.”