Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Clutch the hand of yr creator
i've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: one of my favorite blogs of them all is "Built on a Weak Spot," maintained by one Jonathan Harnish of Missouri. i think i originally stumbled across this site when doing a web search for tidbits about Craw. there was a glowing post about them, which immediately endeared me to BOAWS, and there were a few other things that caught my eye, namely that the blogger was from Missouri (i'm from KC) and that the name was taken from a song by Quicksand, another one of my favorite bands.
but all this is sort of incidental. really what i like about the site is that it encapsulates one of my favorite things about blogging: the fact that there's no obligation whatsoever to be timely. as someone who writes regularly for a print magazine, i have to keep up with what's current, but as anyone who loves music or movies or books or what-have-you knows, that's not always how the brain works. i.e., a lot of the time, the stuff that's most interesting to me isn't timely whatsoever; it's just whatever is grabbing you. lately it's been Fahey and Altman. can't say why--i've just been fascinated by the both of them for a long time now and i'm in a phase where that's what i want to be checking out. anyway, so BOAWS abides by this ethos to a T: Jon basically just posts about whatever band he's thinking about that day, be it a current one or one from the early-'90s heyday of noise/math rock that i grew up amid. his writing is totally unpretentious; really all he's saying is, "check this out, why don't you." but the posts are totally concise and accessible and always equipped w/ mp3 examples. anyway, so check out Built on a Weak Spot when you get a chance.
in honor of this whole idea, i thought i'd talk a little about Clutch, a band that has given me a great deal of pleasure since high school. my friend Drew was the first one to get into them and at his recommendation, they quickly became a staple among me and my friends. we were all super into metal at that time, like Pantera and White Zombie and Metallica and Megadeth and what have you--just super straightforward and for the most part entirely unself-conscious frickin' metal. there was no such thing as the Fucking Champs back then, but there were bands that copped to the absurdities of the genre, and Clutch were pioneers in that respect.
their early music--the stuff we heard first--was brutal and driving, very riff-heavy, with kind of a ferocious hardcore edge. it was played in very relentless, workmanlike way, and the band had this whole sort of iconography and ideology that matched that vibe. there was this blue-collar or hick vibe running through the whole presentation: like their T-shirts used to be these mock-ups of gas-station-attendent jerseys, with a fake name tag that said "Marcus," a reference to their song "A Shogun Named Marcus."
the very earliest stuff, like what you hear on the "Passive Restraints" EP, was recorded before the band really embraced humor. it had this strange ascetic ethos that kind of exalted the idea of manual labor. the cover showed a man working beside an ox in a field and the lyrics had this weird, almost Communist bent to them, e.g. "We'll thresh the psyche and till the pride / Distill the blood, proclaim the gun divine/ Damn the foul ego, praise the promised swarm / We are the ploughshare and yet we are the sword." so there was some pretty weird and kinda overwrought shit happening lyrically, but it was very effective when coupled with the bellowing vocal style and driving, badass heaviness of the music.
as you can tell from the title, the next disc, "Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes and Undeniable Truths," was where the humor really started to become more overt. the cover was a prime piece blue-collar kitsch, as you can see here:
and the lyrics advanced that whole vibe. they were these crazy, surreal and often just flat-out hilarious stories about monster trucks, cola wars and the like. the aforementioned "A Shogun Named Marcus" is a really fun song and got some decent airplay on MTV.
this was the album where vocalist/lyricist Neil Fallon really came into his own as some kind of crazy poet of postmodern pop-cultural kitsch. "Marcus" featured quasi-rapped lines like "Kamikaze backbone / Nine iron spitfire / Continental samurai / Oh my lord / Brown sugar, sweet potato / Sour mash, baby back / Redneck romance, bless my soul," and another song "Walking in the Great Shining Path of Monster Trucks," which became a sleeper fan favorite, began with this great verse: "Well I crashed a Cadillac through the gates of Hell / And returned with a fist full of dollars / And Evel Knievel like Virgil / Was a gentleman as well as a scholar."
so anyway, you get the idea. as goofy as the lyrics were, though, the music stayed pretty much badass and brutal. even though there was a strong emphasis on post-Sabbath riffage, there was still the hardcore-style intensity. that combo of humor and heaviness was really attractive to us at the time. bands like Pantera fucked around and laughed at themselves between songs and on their home videos, but the music was always so goddamn serious and self-important. Clutch lifted the veil a little and made it seem ok to dig metal while at the same time poking fun at the dorky, male-dominated, overserious side of it.
but there were limits to our acceptance. i will never forget the day my friend Adam came over to my house with the follow-up to "Transnational Speedway League," which was simply called "Clutch." he rang my doorbell, handed the disc to me and said simply, "The mighty Clutch hath fallen."
examining the artwork, i could kind of see what he was talking about. the whole package had this retro '50s spaceman vibe and there was a picture of the band in these fake lab coats inside. they were really pushing the kitsch at this point and as i'd soon find out, the music had taken a very large step in that direction as well.
whereas "TSL" was, though very humorous, unequivocally a metal record, "Clutch" was something else: a bona fide psychedelic rock disc, with strong overtones of '70s funk. the whole thing had a very stoner-like aura, and even the production was all retro. in place of Neil Fallon's bark of old was a kind of laid-back drawl and sometimes, a raspy, Onyx-like rap thing. it was a disconcerting change and it made huge waves among my metalhead friends.
i'm not trying to sound like i was all enlightened and open-minded at that time, but i have to say that i don't remember truly grasping what the big deal was. the sound was different, yeah, but i adjusted to it pretty quickly and remember embracing "Clutch" within a week as the most badass record i'd ever heard. i wasn't really familiar with Sabbath, Zeppelin, et al at the time, but i sensed when i checked this out that it was channeling the awesomest elements of classic rock.
the band never really looked back. the next disc, "The Elephant Riders," jettisoned the space theme for a Civil War motif, but the sound was similar: massive, hugely catchy boogie rock with the same crazy, surreal lyrics. it was like they were simultaneously the most badass rock band ever and a parody of said band.
unlike many bands from their era, Clutch is still going strong. they've made a point of touring their asses off and have a huge cult following. they were ping-ponged between a few major labels in the '90s, but now they're on this metal indie called DRT and they seem to be doing fine. pretty much anything you'd want to know is at Pro-Rock, their expertly maintained website. admittedly they haven't changed much since the late '90s and the shtick is a little rote at this point, but the live shows are still ferocious.
i will provide some before-and-after mp3s to give you a sense of the transformation the band underwent, but i just want to share a quick personal anecdote...
my buds and i went and saw these guys like 20 times in high school and college, and we usually hung around before and after the show for autographs and that type of thing. one time they were playing KC and a bunch of my friends went down early to try to chill with them.
i arrived late and saw their bus outside the venue, but my friends were nowhere to be found. so i was just sort of standing outside looking left and right and hoping i'd catch a glimpse of my friends, when suddenly the door of the bus opens and out walks Clutch's singer, Neil Fallon himself. he looks right at me with this really mean glare, points and growls, "Are you Hank Shteamer?!"
of course i'm totally stunned, and i'm like, "Uhhhhh, uh, yeah. why???" and, still glaring, he's like, "Get in here!!!" and points back inside the bus. so i follow him in and through a haze of pot smoke, i see all of my friends in there, laughing hysterically and getting stoned with the band. Neil starts laughing and pats me on the back and in i went. it may not be as cool as the time my friend took shots with Pantera, but it was up there.
so here's three Clutch songs: one is a heavy and pretty serious "before" example from "Transnational Speedway League," and the other two are "after" the watershed conversion to boogie rock. it's all good, but if you put yrself in the frame of mind of a 16-year-old metalhead from Kansas, you might be able to get a sense of the betrayal some of my friends felt when they heard the later stuff.
the last track, "Eight Times Over Miss October," is completely masterful: it's like turbocharged classic rock--referencing the vintage stuff, but in some ways even more enjoyable. check out how soulful and gritty the vocals are--Fallon really evolved into a very heavy belter. hilarious lyrics too. both "Clutch" and "The Elephant Riders" totally rule--i know of no better driving music--and i'm sure you can pick them up from some Amazon vendor for like five bucks. also, do not pass up the chance to see theme live: they weren't kidding when they named that site "Pro-Rock." anyway...
Clutch - Bacchanal (from "Transnational Speedway League" - 1993)
Clutch - Spacegrass (from "Clutch" - 1995)
Clutch - Eight Times Over Miss October (from "The Elephant Riders" - 1998)