Sometimes your favorite albums are the hardest ones to review. Subjective rationale doesn’t often measure up to logic, and certainly don’t go any ways toward preserving journalistic integrity. For instance, how does one convey the intuitive magnetism to the cadence in lines like “Natural fact” or “The mark, the beast / Armageddon in the Middle East?” The wave of chills that come with that perfect mix of polyrhythmic synchronicity Clutch is so damn good at? The feeling won’t be shared by everyone. That goes a long way toward explaining why it took me three weeks to put any words at all together about the Maryland boys’ latest stomping triumph, Strange Cousins From The West.
Clutch are poised to unleash their ninth studio album on July 14th, and in true envelope-pushing fashion, they’re flipping a switch and pulling some roots – but don’t mistake that for a lack of development. Even outside the sweet-spot production tactics of J. Robbins, Cousins marks the band’s first studio release on their own Weathermaker label. It’s a significant development for a veteran band faced with new commercial frontiers and hurdles.
Strange Cousins is a callback to earlier days, but not too early, and certainly not in a straw-grasping Metallica kind of way. After giving their sound the Joe Barresi treatment on 2007’s brilliant, ferocious From Beale Street To Oblivion, the band went back to work with J. Robbins, the genius knob-twister behind Robot Hive/Exodus. RH/E was a slick beast of rock armageddon, and there’s no denying that the 2005 album set a new highwater mark for a band already known to consistently up their own ante. It’s a virtually perfect album.
Strange Cousins recaptures the Robot energy, but is undeniably a blues-funk groove record, start to finish. Most songs navigate around a relatively basic riff or rhythm, with subtle variation and signature shifts (try to keep time on Motherless Child after three or four beers). That’s not at all meant to diminish the lock bassist Dan Maines and guitarist Tim Sult have on the blues-metal riffage, which is in fine form (check out Sult’s slide action at the end of Let A Poor Man Be) – if anything, there’s a hint of restraint here, as if they’re letting the blues find its own air rather than cramming every second full of sound, as was generally the case on Robot Hive.
The drumwork by Jean-Paul Gaster is downright surgical, as can be best heard on Freakonomics and the indignant pirate-radio rocker 50,000 Unstoppable Watts, as well as the blink-and-you-miss-it time shifts in Motherless Child. Vocalist Neil Fallon never fails to outdo himself with the wise-ass lyrical labyrinths, whether pondering our existential spectrum in the looming, bully-playing-hopscotch sound of The Amazing Kreskin (Are we the ocean? Are we the desert? Are we the garbage? Who’s to say?) or casting a pitying eye on humanity on Motherless Child (This place once had a name / The people once had faces / And every town I find / Same sad situation).
Just as with the galloping stomp-rock assault on political feet-draggers that is Freakonomics (really, who else can rhyme “global” with “Chernobyl” with such evangelical swagger?) and the aforementioned Kreskin, Witchdoctor could’ve easily been on Robot Hive. On top of Fallon’s preaching indignance, the lead riff shares nearly identical genetics with Never Be Moved, which to this day stands as my favorite Clutch track in existence. Witchdoctor just has a bit more of a voodoo groove, a depth of sway that RH/E didn’t have time to marinate with its relentlessly searing sermonizing on high. Christ, just writing about it I’m having a hard time not putting on Burning Beard.
Algo Ha Cambiado follows, a little-known Argentinian cover of the Poppo’s Blues Band original (Poppo was an Argentinian hard rock singer/guitarist throughout the ’70s and ’80s). Fallon sings in native tongue, and sounds oddly at home – perhaps even stronger in the new dialect. The climax of the track is a blistering exhibition of accelerating chaos-shredding.
If you’ve been searching for a reliable source of constant unstoppable rock, look no further than Clutch. They’re a hearty backhand slap in the face of all the corner-cutting bullshit anger-rock that infiltrates the airwaves and bro-systems of the Midwest, a working man’s band in the prime of their careers and artistic high-stride. We’re losing our minds with anticipation to see them at Austin City Limits in October. Check back for our interview with drummer Jean-Paul Gaster next week!
Strange Cousins From The West
July 14, 2009
1. Motherless Child
2. Struck Down
3. 50,000 Unstoppable Watts
4. Abraham Lincoln
6. The Amazing Kreskin
8. Let A Poor Man Be
10. Algo Ha Cambiado
11. Sleestak Lightning
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.