Erik D. Harshman
Clutch has always been a mixed bag for me.
I first became aware of them after seeing them perform with Sevendust and (ugh) Limp Bizkit on the “Ladies Night in Cambodia Tour” in 1998 at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis. I loved what I heard and immediately ran out and bought Elephant Riders (an album that has divided most of their fans, as it was the first album that ushered in their now defining blues-classic rock sound). I then saw them several times over the years (opening for Slayer, opening for Sevendust, headlining a bunch, opening for Motörhead, on the Sounds of the Underground tour, etc.). I’ve always found Neil Fallon (both in his lyrics, stage presence and overall persona and personality) to be a bit pretentious and cantankerous. He seems extremely intelligent, but seems to be trying to pull off sort of a “wise country fool” gimmick mixed with the “drunken street smart ruffian” image; an old soul rubble rouser in the body of a modern, pseudo-intellectual neurotic rocker. If nothing else, we know the man loves classic rock, blues, science fiction and hedonism (eating and boozing are historically among his fortes). Put all of this into a blender and there’s no way Clutch can be even remotely predictable, let alone linear or even. Thus, each of their albums, for me, have either been brilliant, life-changingly singular and prismatic, or forgettable, dull and annoying.
Sure, I began my Clutch career with Elephant Riders (and a lot of their fans either embraced that album and organically accepted the shift in their musical dynamic, or they rejected it, angling more towards the hardcore (and comedic) acid-rock sound that permeated their self-titled album and Transnational Speed League). I found very little (save for a handful of songs) to like on those two earlier albums, but loved nearly every quirky little track on Elephant Riders; the album just spells pure joy for me. I likewise enjoyed its unfocused (yet still groovy and funky) follow up, Pure Rock Fury. They seemed to be on a roll. It was around this time that I stopped going to see Clutch live and ultimately stopped buying their albums for a period. See, I would see them live and the band would play about 4-7 whole songs, then lapse into an extended jam session for the rest of the show while (an obviously hungover) Fallon would lean on a amp and put his head down. It wasn’t until Sounds of the Underground in 2005, when I half-listened to them on stage, that I decided to give them another chance. Thankfully, my local library had Robot Hive/Exodus (which I promptly borrowed). That album, to me, was incredible and could very well be their most defining achievement, apart from Elephant Riders. The song writing and musical structure in Robot Hive is just unmatched in their career.
I resumed seeing Clutch live again in 2008 and went back to see what I’d missed in their discography in the years I was an intermittent Clutch fan. Blast Tyrant offered only about a few songs that interested me (“Cypress Grove” and “Profits of Doom”), the hit single (“The Mob Goes Wild”) irritated the hell out of me. From Beale Street to Oblivion again only offered a handful of joyful songs for me (the incomparably groovy and brilliant blues-soaked “The Devil and Me”, the forced funk of “Child of the City” and the “we’re trying too hard” scratchy lament “Electric Worry”). After that I started checking out Clutch’s albums the moment they arrived at the library, but found only one song per album (“Struck Down” off Strange Cousins From the West and “D.C. Sound Attack” from Earth Rocker) to be enjoyable, the rest I could happily live without.
All this is simply so you can know and see where I’m coming from (my personal aesthetic, as it applies to Clutch’s body of work) when I approach a Clutch album.
Now, onto Psychic Warfare…
The album begins with the fast-paced, almost George Thorogood-esque, “X-Ray Visions”. Again, the song shows Fallon’s obsession with science fiction and paranoid conspiracy theory (seen in “Escape From the Prison Planet” and “10001110101”). Hardcore Clutch fans (meaning hipsters) will probably love the track. I found it a bit repetitive, bland and typical as far as the band’s “new classic rock” sound goes.
“Firebirds”, like the previous track, repeats the song’s title constantly (instead of, I don’t know, filling the song with profound lyrics) and is another quick and dirty attempt, and failure in my opinion, of capturing a classic sound that has already been stamped into steel by the masters.
The album rebounds with a little of the funk and flavor that made Elephant Riders (to me) so irresistible: “A Quick Death in Texas” is the type of song most bands want a whole album full of. It’s a stomping anthem that is sure to be a live favorite (the kind of crowd pleaser “The Devil and Me” and “Eight Times Over Miss October” have become).
“A Sucker for the Witch” is full of more repetition, shout outs to Fallon’s classic rock muses (Stevie Nicks, in this instance) and more song title lyrical repetition. Sure, there are rousing moments in the song that show great promise, but they are quickly torn asunder by the generic chorus.
“Your Love is Incarceration” has all the guitar plucking and old timey lyrics a typical (modern) Clutch fan could want. What it doesn’t have is any continuity or focus (lyrically or musically).
“Doom Saloon” is the band’s intermediate instrumental on the album, I suppose it forms a bridge to the second half of the “story” they are presenting here (something about government conspiracies and a lone man caught in the middle, Hitchcock and Orwell, in a rock’n’roll blender). Slow chords, reverb pedals and whammy bars echo through the piece, which is fairly unsettling and powerful for its 1:13.
It coalesces seamlessly into “Our Lady of Electric Light”, however, and this track is Clutch’s obligatory “slow song” that they seem to need to include on each album (to show that they are, indeed, rockers with heart… Like Neil Young). And like “Drink to the Dead” (off Pure Rock Fury) it has the tinge of an Irish drinking anthem to it. However, unlike “Drink to the Dead”, this song falls flat to me.
“Noble Savage” seems to want to thrash, on a Motörhead level, and accomplishes it to a minor degree. Probably only the second song on the album to really excite, interest and wake me up, this is a song to be played at parties… or while driving quickly (for fun, not on your way to an appointment).
“Behold the Colossus” has more some Motörhead emulation, but does so with less savvy than its successor. As with “Sucker for the Witch” there are moments of brilliance, but they are overshadowed by an overall mediocrity, as if the band is too intent on throwing in the kitchen sink (musically speaking) to each song, rather than panning for the gold that exists in small fragments among the muck.
“Decapitation Blues”… Well, I don’t know… There’s nothing about this song that interested me. I can’t even really put my finger on what turned me off so… The song is just that unmemorable.
The album closes with the southern drenched “Son of Virginia”, where Neil Fallon, again, plays it off as the quirky, yet wise, redneck storyteller. At first the song meanders with a riff that sounds derivative of Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive”. It starts rocking at about the 2:40 mark and perks up substantially.
For better or worse, my previous feelings about Clutch remain: their albums and them (as a band) are a bit of a mixed bag. I’ll still see them live (though, really, they have to be touring with another band I want to see for me to make the effort), but their albums only offer one or two stripes of color in an otherwise black and white rainbow… Which doesn’t really make it a rainbow, then, does it?
Rating: 1.5 out of 5 (D+/C-)
Recommended If You Like: Maylene & the Sons of Disaster, Lionize, Crobot, Sixty Watt Shaman
Psychic Warfare will be released October 2, 2015 on Weathermaker Music.