For at least the last six or eight years, no band makes me more nervous than Clutch. Ever since the release of “Robot Hive: Exodus,” the band has left my fanhood on uncertain footing, slowly but surely making adjustments to their sound. As critical praise came easily to “From Beale Street to Oblivion,” many who thirsted for the “Pure Rock Fury” era felt left in the lurch. What were we to make of this new Clutch, with the mellower, more calculated sound? The crowds at the live shows began to shift demographic, skewing in new directions. The eventual release of “Strange Cousins From the West” did little to either confirm or assuage our fears. What was becoming of Clutch?
And what to think of their new release, “Earth Rocker?” The associated press release is very clear; the band is tired of labels being applied to their adaptive sound and would rather prove unequivocally to the world that they always have been and always will be a rock and roll band. To that point, this new creation is a rousing success.
For the first time in three releases going back to “Robot Hive,” Clutch returns some of the edge to their musical personality. You can’t listen to the road grading power of “Unto the Breach” without hearing the distant echoes of “Mice and Gods.” It’s a reassuring truth to see this exhibition by Clutch, a show of good faith to their old fanbase that the band still polishes the blades every so often.
For those who have been beside themselves with anxiety that Clutch’s musical geyser has become as a stagnant pond, “Earth Rocker” should offer a modicum of reassurance. While the album’s guitar tone doesn’t remind of the heady days when Tim Sult strummed the strings and swampy rage poured out, it’s also not the mellow, thin tone that has characterized recent efforts. Rather, Clutch stirs the proverbial brew with a whole new tone, one that is tighter, sharper and indicative of a body that does not rest easy. The new paradigm is evident from the first robust strains of the album’s title track and carries through the bulk of the record.
Not to be outdone by past success, Clutch also remembers that some of their best moments are when they treat their music like good barbecue, cooking it low and slow, letting the tension simmer and build. We’ve seen this before, most recently on “The Regulator” from “Blast Tyrant” and most famously on the ubiquitous “Spacegrass.” That knack returns for the best moment of “Earth Rocker” in the glorious two song set of “Gone Cold” and “The Face.” The first is a mellow blues song of longing and sorrow which dovetails into the latter, a resurgent affirmation of big choruses and explosive emotion. It’s these touches that serve to remind all onlookers that Clutch can still be dangerous on occasion, still virile.
If there is a complaint to be made, it lies with the album’s subject matter. Not what it is, but what it isn’t. Neil Fallon famously used to weave stories of monsters, fables, aliens, legends, conspiracies and general mayhem. To that end, his lyrical combination of sing-song vernacular and flowery poetry elevated the medium (and before someone points it out, yes, I know this is the same guy who once wrote “no super trooper ‘cuz you pooped your pants.”) Absent those themes, Clutch has written more songs centering around a man’s proverbial journey and the words have fallen by the wayside along with the colorful ideas. Concurrent to the shift, Fallon no longer shakes the heavens with his choruses, choosing instead to sing outside the lines and try to fit six pounds of words into a five pound bag. This leaves “Earth Rocker” a delicious but still partially icing-less cake.
“Earth Rocker” is most similar to “Robot Hive” and consequently is the best Clutch album since that effort. For fans of “Transnational Speedway League,” or people who want back the band that wrote “Impetus,” this may not be the exact taste you’re looking for, but it is a pretty solid meeting in the middle of divergent halves. It’s a very good record that is hopefully a window to what we can expect as Clutch continues to evolve.