UNDER THE HOOD Clutch

The newly invigorated veteran Maryland hard rock merchants revisit a 2004
classic as a deluxe two-disc set.

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

Clutch has
been banging around on the fringes of the hard rock and heavy metal realms for
two decades now, achieving a certain notoriety and a modicum of success. Formed
in 1991, the Maryland band attracted major label attention due to the buzz
surrounding their jammy, intense live performances. Clutch would spend much of
the decade of the 1990s bouncing back and forth between labels, all of which
tried in vain to get lead madman Neil Fallon and the band to adhere to some
sort of (commercially-viable) alt-nu-metal aesthetic, like those good boys in
Korn or Incubus.

 

Truth is,
whether you consider him a madman or a genius, or maybe a little of both,
Fallon and his band of merry pranksters have always been a square peg resisting
placement into any sort of round hole. Through the years, Clutch has earned
begrudging respect from metal fanboys and savvy, clued-in hard rock hipsters
alike by pursuing an eclectic musical vision that includes slippery,
groove-laden metallic funk (not unlike Faith No More); slow-drone doom (think
Sabbath, or maybe contemporaries Kyuss); 1970s-era “classic” rock;
and ramshackle electric blues (years before Jack White got his stripes).

 

By 2004,
though, after better than a decade spent hanging around the lower rungs of the
major label machine, Clutch went the indie route and signed with DRT Records, a
label founded by former Gentle Giant member Derek Shulman. The artist-friendly
label seemed like a good fit, and with like-minded fellow travelers such as Fu
Manchu calling DRT home, the original line-up of Clutch – vocalist/guitarist
Fallon, guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines, and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster – made
themselves comfortable and recorded what many consider the band’s best album, Blast Tyrant. Out-of-print these past
few years, Clutch has reissued Blast
Tyrant
as a deluxe, two-disc set on the band’s own brand-spankin’-new label
Weathermaker Records. (Ed. note: For details on Clutch’s ill-fated tenure
with DRT, read our interview with Fallon, published this past January.)

 

What makes
Blast Tyrant so beguiling is the reckless
abandon of the band’s performances. The album opens with, well, a blast of sound
and fury in “Mercury,” Fallon’s splintered guitarplay evoking both
Tony Iommi and Ritchie Blackmore with a blistering intro that is chaotic and
pure blinding white light before the singer’s growling, menacing vocals kick in
above a slingshot rhythm, the song’s brief mythological-based lyrics flashing
by in a heartbeat before the song devolves into pure electronic buzz.

 

“Profits
Of Doom” is a more traditional heavy metal song, sounding slightly like
Ted Nugent’s “Great White Buffalo” around the edges, Fallon’s
beard-puller vocals wrapped around lyrics that read like a Biblical tempest. As
the swirl of clashing guitar, bass, and galloping drumbeats swells ever greater
behind him, Fallon’s voice rises and falls in tandem like a Primitive Baptist
preacher slinging fire and brimstone at the heathens at some backwoods
Mississippi tent revival. As the song reaches an unsustainable fervor, it
breaks down into pure glossolalia, Fallon spitting lyrics about “John the
revelator” and how you should never “trust the white man driving the
black van, he’s just saving all his voodoo for you” in what seems to be a
lyrical damning of the Pharisees of modern finance.

 

Not that
“The Mob Goes Wild” is any less frenetic, starting out with a
nonsensical rap by Fallon about his pants and some dance before the song
launches into what seems to be an anti-war rant delivered above a
guitar-driven, fierce-as-a-rabid-wolverine soundtrack that runs like a runaway
train fast, fast, fast through your consciousness as suddenly the singer recommends
that we all move to Canada and smoke “lots of pot” and proposes that
we “bum rush the border guard before he and his dog ever knew it.”
The insanity spirals out of control, ending with amplifier buzz and ear-ringing
drumbeats. “Cypress Grove” is a bit of malevolent Southern-fried
funk, the song’s redneck tale warning of seriously mean women and dangerous
games, referencing both Ronnie James Dio and bluesman Bukka White, perhaps, as
Fallon and Sult’s twin-guitar thuggery bruises and beats you into submission.

 

Whew…just
when you think that Clutch couldn’t deliver anything more maddening with Blast Tyrant, you discover that they
were just warming up, getting us ready, you see, for the radioactive activity
to follow the nearly-perfect first four tracks. The lyrics of “Promoter
(of earthbound causes)” sound like something from the mouth of Norse
myth’s evil trickster Loki, the song bouncing from ancient Egypt to Ragnarok (the
Viking apocalypse), playing like some sort of acid-etched fever-dream, the protagonist
stating “A little bit of Ritalin goes a long way” and that he’s “ready
to rock if you wanna roll.” You can bet that heads are gonna roll before
this trip is over, Fallon and crew grooving on a rock-rap trip reminiscent of
Kid Rock but with a lysergic fountain of youth at their left hand, the entire
emotional anguish of the words not coming to any conclusion but sounding so
cool as the song tilts out of control.

 

By
contrast, the metallic-blues of “The Regulator” hearken back to the
Mississippi Delta, sliding in on the wings of a finely-strummed acoustic intro
that is soon joined by swirling psychedelic electric. Fallon’s slightly
off-register vocals display a gospel fervor as they rise with the instrument’s
amplification, foreshadowing the band’s great 2007 blues album From Beale Street To Oblivion.  Pounding out a muscular riff and featuring
the band’s now-trademark smothering instrumentation, “The Regulator”
seems to be some sort of morality play, but it’s hard to tell for sure, the
song ending with a pleading “how many times have I prayed that the angels
would speed me away?” above a suddenly-changing, Faith No More-styled
electric funk conclusion.

 

And thus
rolls Blast Tyrant, Fallon’s
individually oblique lyrical vision applied to the band’s increasingly and
delightfully noisy, metal-edged, funky, and fleet-footed surrealistic musical
landscape. “Worm Juice” seems to be about some sort of hallucinogenic
liquor, “Army of Bono” gleefully skewers politics and celebrity by
satirizing everybody’s favorite bonehead Irish rock star; I know who it is, and
you too. The muscle-bound “Spleen Merchant” is a riffy rocker with
more mind-bending lyrics and a guitar squeal that would have made Jimi move
over while “Ghost” toasts the dearly departed, Fallon once again
calling up an Old Testament fury while death stalks us all in the form of the
syncopated rhythms and elegant acoustic fretwork. The instrumental
“WYSIWYG” closes out Blast
Tyrant
with classic rock dignity, the bleating bass-n-drums framework
complimented by Gaster’s broken-glass cymbal crashes and shards of jagged
guitar.

 

The bonus
disc provided this reissue of Blast
Tyrant
is called “Basket of Eggs,” an odds ‘n’ sods collection of
demos and acoustic alternate takes that often move in an entirely different
direction from the main album. “Box Car Shorty’s Confession” is a
rollicking blues number with scraps of spry harpwork and a storyline fitting of
Leadbelly or Skip James. An acoustic version of “The Regulator”
frames the song in a somewhat different light, adding a little more mud and
grit to the original’s Delta influence, slowing it down to a mean-spirited
crawl. “Tight Like That” is another dark, bluesy acoustic bonfire
with gruff, almost spoken-word vocals and “Drink to the Dead”
combines a jazzy undercurrent with a shuffling beat and muted vocals to great
effect. Of the demo tracks, “Cattle Car” stands out for its unabashed
use of cowbell, its undeniable infectious circular riffs, and its blustery
vocals while “Steve Doocy” provides a not-so-subtle commentary on Fox
news morality above a bed of screaming guitars and scraping rhythms.

 

Clutch
was, and is, a creative entity entirely its own, painting with a palette of the
band’s unique creation. Blast Tyrant successfully blends 1970s-inspired hard rock with heavy metal, blues, jazz, and
1990s-styled alt-metal influences, throws in a jam band’s love of lengthy
improvisation and literate, sometimes absurdist, and frequently incoherent
lyrics. Neil Fallon makes you work for your pleasure, and there’s no doubt that
this can be challenging music to wrap your brain around. The destination is
worth the sojourn, however, Blast Tyrant displaying the band’s one-of-a-kind vision with white light clarity. 

 

Clutch kicks off an east coast tour May 20 and
then a Midwest tour in July (with opening act
Corrosion of Conformity). Tour dates at their official website.

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