They’ve metamorphosed from stoner rock weirdos to practitioners of a mighty cool blend of blues, rock, and metal, developing a reputation as one of the most consistent heavy rock bands in America. But for all the hard-earned success, despite the devoted, live bootleg-trading fans who follow them obsessively, one thing Clutch never had was a record label that treated them with any respect. After a brief flirtation with major labels in the late-‘90s and early this decade, it wasn’t until the Maryland band signed to DRT Records that Clutch started to truly come into its own: Blast Tyrant, Robot Hive/Exodus, and From Beale Street to Oblivion formed a superb trifecta between 2004 and 2007. You’d think that a label lucky enough to have these guys (always good on record, always touring, popular enough to guarantee a mid-top 100 debut) would be thrilled to throw its support behind them, but DRT’s seemingly apathetic approach got worse with every new record, the acrimony between artist and label coming to a head when the US CD versions of the ambitiously designed Beale Street were presented in cheap jewel cases, embarrassing the band. If that wasn’t enough, not six months later, the imprint had gone bankrupt, practically boarding up its offices and vanishing overnight, leaving Clutch to pick up the pieces.
As frustrating as 2007 had to have been for the band, two years later Clutch is at long last on firm footing, with a self-run label in Weathermaker Music. Already having warmed up with a 2008 live album/DVD and the latest release by jam band side project The Bakerton Group, they’re set to flex their muscles as auteurs for real with Clutch’s ninth studio album, and from the lavish fold-out digipak artwork to the spirited music within, this is clearly a group of musicians thrilled to have complete artistic freedom at long last.
Their most streamlined record in years, Strange Cousins From the West marks a return to the band’s more robust sound of six years ago. Hammond B3 contributor Mick Schauer played a pivotal role on the last two Clutch albums, adding tremendous richness to the blues-drenched compositions both on record and live, so his departure from the band was a significant one; but while it may be initially jarring to hear the comparatively skeletal-sounding, straight-up four-piece jamming on the new record, what soon becomes apparent is just how much the foursome, especially guitarist Tim Sult, makes up for the absence or that wicked-sounding organ. Blast Tyrant producer J. Robbins has been brought back, and just like that record, the band’s attack is a lot more direct than their more laid-back past two.
“Motherless Child” opens Strange Cousins with a ferocious blues jam, ace drummer Jean-Paul Gaster adding tension with his stuttering beats, as vocalist Neil Fallon eschews his trademark wordplay for sentiments much more direct than usual (“Sometimes I feel just like a countryless man”). Fallon’s history lesson “Abraham Lincoln” is a dark funeral dirge, guitars menacing atop Gaster’s dignified snare rolls, while “50,000 Unstoppable Watts” is quintessential Clutch—heavy riffery, a monstrous groove, and Fallon’s charisma melding into something as powerful as the song title would indicate, Fallon’s maniacal howl of “Anthrax, ham radio, and liquor” typically enigmatic yet vivid. In direct contrast is the lively “Struck Down”, a song as thematically pedestrian as anything Clutch has ever recorded, but Sult’s propulsive riff is undeniable, Gaster and bassist Dan Maines locking down that head-bobbing groove all the while.
The rest of the album ambles along comfortably, swaggering here, shuffling there, Sult’s nimble guitar work carrying the swinging “Witch Doctor”, “Minotaur”, and “The Amazing Kreskin”. The albums final third, though, is especially vigorous, with the straight-ahead blues of “Let a Poor Man Be”, Fallon’s crazed doomsayer delivery on “Freakonomics” (“Nothing’s gonna satisfy them / Till it all goes Cernobyl”), the fun Spanish-sung cover of the Argentinian rock tune “Algo Ha Cambiado”, and the brilliantly titled, wickedly contagious “Sleestack Lightning”
Perfectly timed for the sweltering, lazy days of summer, Strange Cousins From the West isn’t as much a reinvention as it is a reaffirmation of just how resilient a band Clutch is. Even without proper label support, they’ve been on one hell of a creative roll these past five or six years, but now that they finally find themselves fully in charge of every aspect of their art. It’s starting to reflect in the songs, something both the band and their fans can only benefit from in the long run.
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