The Hang of Music: Three Times Over Clutch In August
Posted by hatfulofnapalm
Hey guys, we’re stepping back into familiar territory with a band I’ve been trying to fathom for most of my time on this blog. I remember sitting in a friends house and writing the review for this band’s first album last summer. Oh good times, days before I became the internet powerhouse I am now…
I am speaking, of course, of Clutch, who are to poets what bin-men are to mathematicians, but they can shred a guitar.
That was a bit harsh, but regardless here’s their third album, inexplicably called “The Elephant Riders”. No mention of the Maharaja anywhere.
So if you’ve read any of my previous reviews on this subject, then you already know a fair bit about Clutch. They’re loud; they’re slow; they’re extremely mixed; and I like to think that, deep down underneath the seeming layers and layers of lyrics they just didn’t care about and the difficult to differentiate between songs, they have some talent.
I would classify this band, if asked, as “having potential”.
So the real question in this review is “what’s changed?” What is it, if anything that they’re doing differently this album? And what should they be doing differently that has still been left unchanged?
If you have any idea how I write these reviews, you know I’m not going to deal with these yet – first, I have to give you an idea as to what it sounds like. Through the medium of words, rather than the sample video above.
Since listening to this album, I’ve gone back and done a few comparisons. I feel it’s important to get a sense of continuity here. I’ve also gone back and read both of my previous reviews. My god, the bad writing burns! I even found a few spelling errors, and as such had to bathe the unclean away.
Regardless, though, I’ve come to a few conclusions. The first one is that the opening track on this album is better than the other two. Actually, scratch that – it feels a lot like a straight up combination of the two, with most of their good parts, and very few of the bad parts. “A Shogun Named Marcus” was pacy, if lacking in clarity and timbre*, and felt out of place with their heavy, trucker image, whereas “Big News I” by comparison was big and clean, but kinda boring. It didn’t help as well that it was a 5 minute intro to another song.
In comparison, “The Elephant Riders” – the eponymous first track of the album I’m reviewing – is interesting, better paced, well-produced, trucker-ish, heavy. OK, it’s still a bit plodding, but I’m not asking for perfect. It was a good progression from the other two.
This album has also hammered home, to me, one of Clutch’s strengths, as exemplified by “The Soapmakers”: the band know themselves some rhythm. Other examples include “Muchas Veces” and pretty much any other track, to be honest. The tunes all have a bit of an off-beat style to them, and though the riffs are usually repeated ad infinitum, they have a good groove to them. I’m not surprised at all that for the album after this, they released a primarily “groove-based” album by the name of “Jam Room”. (Though what “groove-based” means here, I don’t even know.)
Seeing that I mentioned video reviews earlier; were I to do video reviews instead of written ones, I would be forced to cut to a clip of this at this point. They are two entirely different bands, and both (relative) unknowns a nation and an ocean apart, and it’s just the one riff, but the pre-chorus on “The Elephant Riders” sounds nigh identical to the verse there.
Lyrics-wise, the band still falls down. I read on their wiki page that they used to be known for “heavy anti authoritarian-political lyrics”, and that they have tried to maintain that image. Well, frankly, no. The only songs where the lyrics are enough of a focus to be distinct are songs about yetis (“The Yeti”), imagined love affairs with celebrities (“Muchas Veces”, and what I can only call a pot-head’s conspiracy theories about recycling bins (“Green Bucket”). Oh and yelling “E-le-phant Ri-ders!” throughout the chorus.
It doesn’t help that they (still) frequently interject nursery rhymes and TV catchphrases such as “Yabba Dabba Do” into the lyrics, which leap out a lot faster than any of the other low-in-mix, low-in-pitch vocals. And the words that they do use, don’t go out of their way to tell you what the songs themselves mean. I can hardly think of another band who obviously puts so much effort into the words, and still makes this little sense.
I really like these songs. But their structure and composition varies from odd to just plain crap. Sometimes a bit of their oddness works, but most of the songs are a mishmash of actually good riffs patchworked together. Or they make other composition faux-pases’s… es, like “Eight Times Over Miss October”,which just launches in. No intro. No warning. No gap even from the last track, really. Just “instant song – just add track break”.
Contrast this with when their methods really pay off, such as “Crackerjack”. “Crackerjack” actually reminds me of some proper jazz. It may not show in these reviews, but I am a big jazz fan, and the idea of that being combined into rock and metal, and more importantly, combined well, makes me very happy! Skeptical too, as usually when jazz gets included in stuff like this, it’s purely as an excuse for otherwise inexcusably bad decisions – but here it’s done well. The sax on “Crackerjack” is just right, and their slow, heavily rhythmic feel works well.
When re-reading my previous reviews in preparation for this one, I realised that, entirely independently of each other, I referenced Psychostick in both of those reviews. I was listening to this dead serious sludge metal, and my first thoughts were to compare them to a parody band. That says a lot.
So would I make a similar reference on this album? Could I? The thing is, this album is actually a lot less funny. Much more dead serious, much less so over the top it’s almost parodic.
I’m really not sure if I’ve developed Stockholm’s or if I actually like this album. I can do things with this album that I couldn’t with any of the previous ones, like tell you two, individual tracks that stuck out in my mind as special – “The Soapmakers” has great rhythm, and the jazz-fusion aspect of “Crackerjack” is good – so they’re definitely starting to overcome their indistinguishability demons.
And though that may seem like I’m damning them with faint praise, that’s a real step forward for them – my main complaint with “Clutch – The Album Not The Band” was that, though the songs were good, they were too indistinct to be great. Here, though, I do actually have a serious soft spot for some of the tracks in and of themselves.
I think this is the first Clutch album that I can actually state, hand on heart, that I like. The others weren’t terrible, and “The Elephant Riders” is far from bereft of flaws. hell, it’s still a bit murky, but if I haven’t made that clear by now I haven’t been doing my job. But it provides examples of good rhythm, (some examples of) good construction, and much more care.
So this I say to Clutch: ride on, my friends; ride on.
* Been ages since I’ve even seen that word. It feels right, though.