Atlanta’s prog-sludge masters Mastodon have followed their own muse wherever it’s taken them ever since their debut some 15 years ago, and each album in their catalogue has been a fun guessing game as to what path they’d take next: epic concept albums (Leviathan, Crack The Skye), straight-ahead rock/metal stompers (The Hunter), and riff albums that make guitar nerds the world over jizz themselves and their Orange amps in excitement (Remission, Blood Mountain). This free spiritedness has tended to split the band’s fan base into two camps: the purists who love their earlier crazy progressive side, and those who are partial to their more recent, “streamlined” output. Whichever side of the divide you stand on, seventh album Emperor of Sand will offer plenty of moments with which to tickle your fancy, as it’s chockful of hooky riffs while still being Mastodon’s most ambitious offering in years.

We’re treated to another concept this time around, based on the band members’ experiences with the dreaded specter of cancer: the main character is handed a death sentence and is sent to wander the desert, reflecting on himself and the meaning of his life. Lots of musing going on, and the band teams up again with Skye producer Brendan O’Brien (Stone Temple Pilots, King’s X) to paint a compelling picture, with warm drum tones and powerful guitars. Opener “Sultan’s Curse” starts things off in proper Mastodon fashion, a Leviathan-esque rager that has bassist Troy Sanders and lead guitarist Brent Hinds doing their classic lead vocal tradeoffs. By contrast, lead single “Show Yourself” is super-straightforward, clocking in at 3 minutes but packing a lot of memorable riffage and quality harmony vocals behind drummer Brann Dailor’s voice (and seriously, this dude can really SING). Dailor sings lead again on standout track “Steambreather”, with a mean groove and lyrics that ponder “I wonder who I am… I wonder where I stand/I’m afraid of myself.” And album closer “Jaguar God” is just amazing: an epic ballad that transforms into an all-out riff fest, with some of the best vocals Hinds has ever done. “It’s right in front of me/your malignancy” could be towards a mythical villain, a tumor, or probably both, but the delivery behind those lines is gut-punching.

Mastodon have never been a slouch in the instrumental department, and all of the members turn in stellar performances on Emperor of Sand: Dailor’s outstanding drumming isn’t as full of fills as usual, but his cymbal work is on point, and he’s really come into his own as a singer. Bill Kelliher’s rhythm guitar tones are fantastic, and Hinds is simply one of the most underrated soloists in recent years; the guy pulls a ton of emotion out of his instrument. And Sanders’ grinding bass and roaring tenor blends in perfectly with the proceedings.

Emperor of Sand is an album that, to beat a clich矇 to death, really does reward with repeated listens. Even now as I close this review out, I’ll probably think of other things to point out about it; but quite simply, this is Mastodon’s best album since Crack The Skye. It’s always hard when creativity is sourced from tragedy, but Mastodon captured the emotion and thoughts behind their individual struggles, channeled them into musical form… and delivered. Brilliantly.