A condemned man wanders through the desert. He knows death is near. And in that parched, barren place, he ponders it all: life, death, loss, eternity.
Such is the stuff of the Atlanta-based prog-metal act Mastodon. The group’s seventh studio effort, Emperor of Sand, is an 11-song concept album about a man who’s been sentenced to execution, but who escapes—for a time—into the wilderness in a vain attempt to outrun his fate.
Despite the album’s mystical, dystopian and apocalyptic lyrical trappings, however, there’s another layer of meaning that’s much more personal. The subtext of the album is the death of guitarist Bill Kelliher’s mother after losing her bout with cancer.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, drummer/singer/lyricist Brann Dailor said of the album’s focus, “Time is a very big theme of the album. How much time do we have left? What are we doing with our time?” He also added, “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.”
Album opener “Sultan’s Curse” alludes to the protagonist’s grim, as-yet-unfinished death sentence. But despite his sadness (“Tears are as strong as 10,000 tongues”), there’s also a vaguely spiritual, confident resolve (“Faith is in me/End I can see”), as well as happy recollections of his life (“Memories of loved ones are passing me by”).
“Show Yourself” talks of finding meaning in the isolation and silence of the desert (“Speak the ancient wisdom of the desert/ … The truth will send a ripple through your body”). Though the end is inescapable, this is one of several songs that talks confidently of an afterlife (though how one ends up in that seemingly heaven-like place is never addressed): “Sail into the void without your worries/ … I’ll see you on the other side of the fire.” “Roots Remain” rightly recognizes, “Beauty fades/Death decays,” but also insists that our relational connections with others represent a legacy that transcends death: “Branches break/Roots remain/Strong in mind.” The band also recognizes that many temporal losses ultimately don’t matter (“And all that I have come to lose/Gone so long it doesn’t matter anyway”), while the things that matter most “remain with me until the bitter end.” The protagonist instructs someone, “And when you sit and picture me/Remember sitting in the sun and dancing in the rain.” Then he adds, “The end is not the end, you see” before again talking about the importance of cherishing our memories.
“Precious Stones” talks of finding “diamonds in the rough” in hard places and exhorts repeatedly, “Don’t waste your time/Don’t let it slip away from you/Don’t waste your time/If it’s the last thing you do.” Similarly, “Steambreather” finds the album’s main character reflecting on his identity in the wilderness: “I wonder who I am/Reflections offer nothing/I wonder where I stand.” Interestingly, despite confidence elsewhere, he’s not sure he trusts himself: “I’m afraid of myself.”
“Word to the Wise” expresses a desperate, prayer-like request (“Save me from the wicked ways/Pulling me with all its weight”). There’s also, it would seem, a metaphorical recognition of personal responsibility in the midst of self-deception: “I fell into a pit of lies/I tried to dig around the other side/And much to my surprise/I was to blame for all the rain.”
“Ancient Kingdom” includes multiple references to an afterlife following death, including this one: “Ride beyond mortality/Leaving beauty now/Sparks explode into the air/Live forever/Ageless sounds, they never die/And I will remain.” “Andromeda” mentions being granted “a second lease on your life,” and talks about the brevity of this finite time flowing into a timeless infinity.
“Scorpion Breath” honestly grapples with the mystery of death (“Constantly burying our loves/In the trench of this mysterious despair/It leaves us empty”), but still affirms, “The truth is real,” and talks of becoming the people we were meant to be: “Lead me deeper/To fulfill this seed I grew/Into at my birth.”
Album closer “Jaguar God” finds our hero admitting his own fallenness (“I ain’t no good”) and seemingly calling out to some kind of deity for guidance (“Guide me through this black sorcery”).
Most of the content that could be qualified negatively on Emperor of Sand has to do with the grim fate of the story’s hero as well as spiritual musings that veer off in erratic or problematic mystical directions.
Examples of the first of these two categories show up several times. On “Sultan’s Curse,” there’s talk of being bound and perhaps tortured (“Your feet have been tied and your tongue in your hand”). “Show Yourself” commands (perhaps metaphorically), “Shed your skin and float it down the river/Lose yourself.” “Precious Stones” includes a violent battle with snakes. “Ancient Kingdom” references execution by beheading.
Next up, “Clandestiny” is one of the more grim songs on the album, as it doesn’t have much in the way of counterbalancing hope. Instead, we hear, “The road is dark and bare/No clarity, no light/The moment came and swallowed us/Blinding all our sight.” Meanwhile, hysterically shouted lyrics at the end of “Andromeda” are difficult to parse clearly: “Chronic illusions, confusing conclusions/Foster the culture, predict the deception/Chronic delusions with caustic solutions.”
Regarding those spiritual musings, “Show Yourself” suggests the possibility that we, alone, are able to save ourselves: “Only you can save yourself.” That track also ponders whether all of existence might only be an illusion (“Or could this dream/Be real at all?”). “Steambrother” talks of “running outside the Nazca lines” and “climbing inside the cosmic eye.”
Finally, there’s a reference to a deity of some sort on album closer “Jaguar God,” but there’s no obvious correlation here with a Christian understanding of who God is: “The prophecy will be realized/Lord of the near and the nigh/Possessor of earth and sky.”
Heavy metal is sometimes maligned for being nihilistic, profane and morbid. And some metal groups have rightly earned such castigation. That said, metal is also a genre in which other bands grapple with some of life’s deepest issues and mysteries in a way that many other kinds of music rarely do.
I think that’s the case with Mastodon’s Emperor of Sand. Oh, there’s definitely some odd, sci fi-style spirituality spinning around here, to be sure. And some dark narrative moments, too. But buried not too deeply beneath the band’s pummeling riffs (think Slipknot, Avenged Sevenfold and Killswitch Engage) and desperate, dune-filled narrative is a story about facing death.
What do we do with death? How do we find hope? Is there an afterlife? How can we go on amid loss? What should we do with the time we’ve been given?
Mastodon doesn’t offer a Christian answer to those questions, per se. But the band does affirm that life matters, that what we do in our relationships matters and that death is not the end. These are surprisingly hopeful messages for a prog-metal album about an exile trying to outrun his executioner.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.