Weirdly enough, Clutch's sixth album sounds more Bonnaroo than Ozzfest. Even weirder, that's a good thing.
Although Clutch emerged from the alt-metal scene dominated by Korn and the Deftones in the mid-to-late '90s, they approached things a bit differently than their peers. While lunkheaded fratboys were moshing to all the downtuned bass and white boy rage that was prevalent at the time, Clutch played the kind of metal that could move every once in a while. Equal parts stoner rock, Southern rock, funk, and blues, the Maryland band were one of the few bands at the time who dared to inject their aggressive music with a sense of fun. Their first four albums, while not huge mainstream successes by any stretch, did earn a rabid cult following, but it wasn't until they joined the DRT label that they began to truly reach their potential, as last year's Blast Tyrant was critically well-received, their riffs of Sabbath-esque doom mixed with a healthy dose of Southern twang, best exemplified by "The Mob Goes Wild" and "Cypress Grove".
While the blues-based jam "WYSIWYG" brought Blast Tyrant to a somewhat awkward close, its lackadaisical, organ-driven sound contrasting greatly from the rest of the album, little did we know it would serve as a hint as to just where this band would go on their next CD. Clutch has always been a band who throws in different sounds on their records, a bloated stoner riff here, a little acoustic country blues there, and in spite of the fact that Robot Hive / Exodus is musically hardly anything we haven't heard before, it's still their most radical departure to date, as the band have actually chosen a sound, and stuck with it. As a result, it's not only Clutch's most consistent album, it's also their best.
You might as well call these guys Bonnaroo metal now. With a full-time keyboardist in tow, the band has gone totally blues rock on us, combining the lithe, blues-based jam sounds of the Allman Brothers with the more muscular, Hammond organ-enhanced riffing of Deep Purple, performed with the maniacal energy of the North Mississippi Allstars. Instead of coming off as a stale Black Crowes imitation, Clutch approach a once-tired sound with audacious vigor. With a mad gleam in their collective eyes, they have dared to do the unthinkable: bring together be hippies and the metalheads for one nutty party.
Tim Sult's guitar work is much less heavy than in the past, and more lively, as he adds plenty of Lynyrd Skynyrd style flourishes instead of simple power chords. Also, singer Neil Fallon is gradually getting away from his lower-register bark, in favor of a more mid-range, yet still robust sound, making his vocals much more accessible to new listeners. However, that's not to say that Robot Hive / Exodus doesn't have any meat on its bones,; in fact, the album gets off to quite a muscular start. "The Incomparable Mr. Flannery" is nestled in a nimble groove, as Fallon howls about "Delaware Destroyers rockin' with Dokken." The ferocious "Mice and Gods" comes closest to equaling the heavier songs in the band's back catalog, but it's the brilliant "Burning Beard" that highlights the album's first half. Boasting a pummeling, stuttering riff and bassline, Fallon takes center stage; a dude who has an uncanny knack for combining hilariously surreal stoner poetry and cultural commentary, he is in rare form on this track, spewing such inspired lines as, "Shadow of the New Praetorian/ Tipping cows in fields Elysian."
It's when you hear Mick Schauer's Hammond stabs on "Never Be Moved" that the album starts to seriously head into blues rock territory. After the funky "10001110101" (probably the only song you'll ever hear that includes a chorus of shouted binary code), Clutch is in full-on jam band mode, as four tracks, the Booker T-meets-cowbell instrumental "Small Upsetters", the slinky "Circus Maximus" and "Tripping the Alarm", and the fiery testimonial "10,000 Witnesses" all segue into one another, making for a 12-minute suite, one with nary a dull moment. After the effective blend of mellow organ and swampy riffs on "Land of Pleasant Living", the album closes with two faithful blues covers, in the form of Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Gravel Road", and Howlin' Wolf's "Who's Been Talking", the latter bearing a close resemblance to late 1980s Tom Waits, with Fallon's hoarse vocals, and Sult's Marc Ribot-style guitar fills.
Boasting some of the coolest digipak artwork we'll see all year, Robot Hive / Exodus not only builds on the success of Blast Tyrant, it tops every album Clutch has released before, combining everything they've done in the past into one cohesive sound that is as fresh as it is comfortably familiar. It's not a musical direction that will make the mosh crowd happy, but with this music playing, they'll probably be too busy dancing to bother complaining.