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Friday, February 15, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A&E >  Music

Prog-metal quartet Mastodon channels personal struggles into “Emperor of Sand”

Mastodon will play the Knitting Factory in support of its latest releases, “Emperor of Sand” and the “Cold Dark Place” EP. (Jimmy Hubbard)
Mastodon will play the Knitting Factory in support of its latest releases, “Emperor of Sand” and the “Cold Dark Place” EP. (Jimmy Hubbard)

When Brann Dailor, drummer and vocalist of Atlanta prog-metal band Mastodon, spoke with The Spokesman-Review, he was in Oklahoma, sitting with his wife under a tree that, for some reason, was attracting a group of monarch butterflies.

Not as metal an activity as, say, biting the head off a bat, but it’s all in a day’s work while Mastodon is on tour behind its latest releases, “Emperor of Sand” and the “Cold Dark Place” EP. The band stops by the Knitting Factory on Tuesday.

Mastodon – guitarist/vocalist Brent Hinds, Dailor, guitarist Bill Kelliher and bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders – released “Emperor of Sand” in March.

Like they did with 2009’s “Crack the Skye” and 2011’s “The Hunter,” which honor Dailor’s sister and Hinds’ brother, respectively, the band channeled personal struggles into “Emperor of Sand.”

The narrative-driven album follows a person who has been given a death sentence from a desert ruler, a grim reaper-like character called the Sultan. Throughout the album, the protagonist struggles to find help in a vast wasteland.

The band was inspired to tell such a story after witnessing loved ones – Kelliher’s mother, Sanders’ wife, Dailor’s mother – battle cancer.

“As surrounded by loved ones as you are, that cancer is yours alone to beat, and that journey through that illness is yours alone,” Dailor said. “I could, in my mind’s eye, imagine this vast wasteland of desert to trudge through to try to get to the other side of it.”

Thematically, the album deals with mortality and time.

On “Precious Stones,” for example, Sanders sings “Don’t waste your time/Don’t let it slip away from you/Don’t waste your time/If it’s the last thing that you do.”

Dailor said they’ve reached an age where, as people around them get sick or die (Kelliher’s mother died from brain cancer in 2016), they start to think about their own mortality.

Dailor said they’re reminded of how valuable health is, and he noted that, although many people can wake up and say “It’s great to be alive,” not everyone shares those feelings, a realization that has made him think about how he wants to spend his remaining time.

“I don’t really ever subscribe to ‘live every moment like it’s your last’ because who wants to be bungee jumping for 24 hours a day?” he said with a laugh. “There’s going to be those wonderful moments of sitting (under) a tree with your wife watching the butterflies flutter by, so that’s a good way to spend it. Or you can watch reality television, which I also enjoy.”

In September, Mastodon followed up “Emperor of Sand” with the four-song “Cold Dark Place” EP. Three songs came from recording sessions for 2014’s “Once More ‘Round the Sun,” and “Toe to Toes” was recorded during the “Emperor of Sand” sessions.

Where “Emperor of Sand” finds Dailor, Hinds and Sanders trading vocal duties over layers of genre-crossing instrumentation, “Cold Dark Place” puts the band’s southern roots on display, with Hinds taking the lead vocally.

“We felt like it was such a different sounding thing that would be a cool companion piece showcasing the many sides of us, of what Mastodon is and what Mastodon can be and maybe where we’re headed,” Dailor said about the decision to release the EP.

Dailor said the band goes into the studio with songs about 75 percent complete and leaves the other quarter up to spontaneity.

“Toe to Toes” came from that quarter of spontaneity, as did “Jaguar God,” off “Emperor of Sand.”

In both cases, Hinds had guitar riffs the band wasn’t sure what to do with, so he and Dailor sat down and began composing songs practically off the top of their heads.

Sanders and Kelliher then added their parts, and Dailor stayed up all night before the final day of recording to write lyrics.

Dailor remembers the day they recorded “Jaguar God” as being long and frustrating, but said, looking back, he thinks the song is one of the best on the album.

Writing the song also changed a long-held belief of Dailor’s about how to select which songs make it onto an album.

“There goes that feeling of ‘Oh, I haven’t poured over this for months and months and months, so there’s no way that it could be good…,’ ” he said. “It can also happen in a very spontaneous way and still be something that the four of us feel like is allowed on the album.”

Working on “Emperor of Sand” and “Cold Dark Place” has gotten Dailor excited to work on more music. While on tour, Dailor said the band will write here and there, “filling up the riff bag as we do.”

“In a year or so, we’ll come back down to planet Earth and dump the riff bag out and see what Mastodon has to cook up for the next installment,” he said.

He warns that it will likely be a couple years before the band releases its next album, reflecting back on the idea of spending the time you have left wisely.

“It’s always been we’re four creative people and we love our creative project, Mastodon,” he said. “We want to do as much of it as possible to donate to the world of music.”

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