“Break it down to brass tacks. Break it down to just the facts.” - Clutch, “Earth Rocker”
That quote, drawn from the first and title track from Clutch’s 10th album Earth Rocker, perfectly encapsulates both the album’s content and the band’s approach to it. Simply put, the release is a rip-roaring riot of instinctual, swaggering rock, and as far as that particular aesthetic goes, it’s the album to beat in 2013. That might seem like a bold claim when we’re only four months into the year, but why don’t we follow Clutch’s advice to the letter, and break Earth Rocker down to 10 simple facts.
(1) Heavy rock is spilling over with ludicrous amounts of preposterous bravado. Obviously, that’s to be expected; the theatrics therein demand hyperbole, and the publicity machine leaps into frenzied action every time a new album is released. We all know, of course, that at the end of the day the ridiculous puffery means naught, because what really counts are the acts that ignore the worst of those gimmicky games and concentrate on putting out honest albums and delivering every night on stage.
(2) Maryland-based four-piece Clutch is unquestionably in that category. Over the past two decades the band has been relentlessly tearing it up around the globe like a ravenous and tenacious road-dog. Preaching the word from beer-soaked club stages, or from pyro-packed festival platforms, Clutch has been firing up crowds with its blend of heavy-ass jamming blues, stoner rock, metal, funk, and whatever other grungy pursuits it’s seen fit to throw into the mix.
(3) Recording wise, Clutch has always navigated its own course, with every new album building atop a firm foundation of single-minded, street-wise (and backwater) wisdom. The band has become a markedly idiosyncratic and much-loved group in the process, with its primal rock and blues being simultaneously shrewd and a hell of a lot of shit-kicking fun. (Like a free-for-all brawl in a library, between an exoskeleton-clad Stephen Hawkins and a firewater guzzling Lemmy—with Robert Johnson providing the soundtrack via a wall of melting Marshall stacks).
(4) Earth Rocker is Clutch’s first album since 2009’s Strange Cousins from the West, and it’s a stripped-down, high-octane, in-your-face riff-fest. Gone are the vintage rock and blues jams of its predecessor, replaced by electrifying, succinct, and altogether bruising tunes. It is Clutch’s most streamlined release in a decade—inspired, in part, by touring with Mötorhead. Accordingly, it is exhilarating, fortifying and forthright, and mimics the band’s sweat-drenched and dynamic live sound well. The one-two punch of its title certainly conjures up the explicit fury of 2004’s Blast Tyrant, and the same beefed-up guitar grunt and whip-cracking pace are present—as are infectious melodies wrapped around the band’s patented groove-laden boogie. It’s no coincidence that Earth Rocker producer, Machine, was behind the desk for Blast Tyrant too.
(5) Clutch already had Earth Rocker sketched out when it entered the studio to record, with the main idea being to increase the forcefulness and velocity. There’s no doubt the album does that. All the songs—bar the dark slow soul of “Gone Cold”, which serves to split sides ‘A’ and ‘B’ neatly—are propulsive and hugely anthemic. The scorching opening trio of “Earth Rocker”, “Crucial Velocity” and “Mr Freedom” are instant Clutch classics, and the cow-bell clanging, funk, punk and Southern-fried romp of “D.C. Sound Attack!” is simply one of the best songs Clutch has ever recorded.
(6) In truth, for all Earth Rocker‘s dismantling of Clutch’s latter-years, jam-band tenor, it still piles on the furious riffs, making for some of the band’s most unadorned and energetic work. Guitarist Tim Sult’s sprints up the fret-board are everywhere, and he hasn’t sounded so overtly belligerent in years. The low-end thunder of bassist Dan Maines fuels the album’s heft, and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster is in dazzling form, dexterously shifting from pummel to shuffle. The crunch of unvarnished ‘70s hard rock is there on “The Wolfman Kindly requests…”. On “Book, Saddle & Go” and “Cyborg Bette”, the quick-fire blasts of riffs, percussion and baritone snarls render them into seething, red-hot tantrums. In all, the music mixes old-time swing with rowdy garage and arena rock—all smoldering on a bed of igneous, unpolished blues. It’s simply grooves, grooves, and more grooves (which will be familiar for Clutch fans), but the key point being made here is that visceral outbursts such as these never grow old—this is timeless and incandescent rock and roll.
(7) Momentum aside, vocalist and lyricist Neil Fallon is in floridly-fanatical-preacher mode throughout. His wild-eyed lyrical flow on first track “Earth Rocker” (“Don’t look to me for answers, cause I don’t have one. I just came to have a good time, and I’m gonna have one”) is backed by devilish “Blooo-ahhh!” cackles, reinforcing the album’s dedicated mission statement. Fallon is, of course, the Charles Bukowski/Henry Rollins-style poet laureate of bayous, basements, and boiling metropolises, with a voice that is drenched in world-weary perceptiveness—and comes with a gruffness, temper, and meter all of his own.
(8) On Earth Rocker, Fallon’s charisma shines on the rallying cries of “Unto the breach” and “The Face”, and fair roars on the free-wheeling escapism of “Crucial Velocity”. His skewed political commentary turns up on “D.C. Sound Attack!” (Hell Hounds on your trail, what a pity. But that’s the price you pay, shaking hands in Necro-city) and “Mr Freedom”. Even if—by his own admission—Fallon’s not entirely sure what he’s howling about all the time, his eccentric observations and chest-beating proclamations sit at the heart of Earth Rocker‘s appeal, as they have done for all of Clutch’s albums.
(9) Clutch promised Earth Rocker, would be a “straight-up rock and roll album”, and in one sense that’s exactly what you get. However, things are never quite that simple with Clutch (see the aforementioned shrewdness). Earth Rocker certainly pays tribute to the glory of no-frills, roughneck rock—with rancorous verses giving way to colossal and stirring choruses—but that’s something Clutch has always done. Earth Rocker will unshackle your woes, and there’s a spiritedness here that could likely reanimate the dead. But what matters most is the bigger picture, which highlights a band that has been mining the deliverance to be found in rock and roll for over two decades, and shows no sign of exhausting that vein anytime soon.
(10) Clutch may well have been seeking to shed some of its veneer on Earth Rocker—and it has certainly achieved that—but that leanness only emphasizes what we already knew. Clutch craft addictive and contagious songs, no matter their density. Clutch’s aim here was to try something different, and in stripping Earth Rocker of its fat, the band has revealed even more imaginative and powerful artistic muscle.