Robot Hive/Exodus

(DRT; 2005)

By David M. Goldstein | 27 July 2005

On behalf of Clutch fans everywhere, I feel like I need to apologize for the cover art on this record. While it's no secret to the faithful that these guys smoke (or at least used to) their fair share of the sticky-icky, based off the artwork, I'd excuse you for thinking that Clutch were some abysmal prog-rock band on a micro-indie that takes out mail order ads in Guitar World. And it's a cardboard digi-pack too, which I hate. The artwork on 2001's Pure Rock Fury serves as a far better indicator of the heaviness this band is capable of; featuring Clutch looking extremely badass in an open field with storm clouds looming overhead. Cover art aside however, Blast Tyrant will do nothing to change the fact that twelve years after their inception, Clutch remain one of the most consistently excellent bands in modern metal, criminally under-appreciated outside of their cult fan base.

Clutch fucking rock. I realize that such a description is bereft of the hyperbole and endless witticism that music critic folk are expected to come up with, but there's really no other way to describe them. I mean, sure, their sound features much use of the blues scale and borrows greatly from '70s psych-metal bands like Black Sabbath and Vanilla Fudge, but guitarist Tim Sult uses his wah-pedal way more than Tony Iomni ever did, and Clutch have the considerably Dead-like habit of playing upwards of 200 shows a year, changing the setlist every night (heaven forbid Radiohead attempt this). Add an atypically agile rhythm section that swings like Buddy Rich, and the result is an unusually funky metal band that rocks extremely hard. Not "funky-metal" in the sense of a tattooed oaf hunched over slapping a 7-string bass, but funky meaning wah-drenched guitar leads and molasses thick dub basslines reminiscent of a faster Band of I consider myself to be a reasonably knowledgeable Clutch fan, and yet I had absolutely no idea that they had a new record out. I literally didn’t become aware of Robot Hive / Exodus until I saw it on the new release rack at the store, conveniently wedged next to a Bam Margera compilation (on which Clutch were contributors). I hadn’t been this excited to purchase an album in ages; to think that in these days of BitTorrent and the T1 connection I was about listen a record without having heard a single track in advance! Shudder to think.

Part of the reason that Robot Hive/Exodus (why the backslash?) was off my radar is the fact that Clutch’s excellent Blast Tyrant was just released a little over a year ago, and they’re generally very reluctant studio artists, touring nonstop but often taking three years between releases. Unfortunately, a listen to RH/E might convince a Clutch fan that another three year studio break might not be a terrible idea. While far from awful, too much of Robot Hive fails to pack Clutch’s usual ‘70s muscle-car metal groove; it's hamstrung by uncharacteristically weak production and a surprising lack of moments in which to punch the air with your fist.

RH/E’s most immediate shortcoming is its unexplainable lack of emphasis on Clutch’s not-so secret weapon: the frightening rhythm section of Jean-Paul Gaster (drums) and Dan Maines (bass). Maine’s basslines, usually high in the mix and packing a dubby rumble, are practically muted into non-existence, and Gaster’s snare is robbed of the thunderous tone that it so deserves to have. J. Robbins produced RH/E, and though it’s pretty clear to these ears that he was completely unfamiliar with Clutch’s sound before heading into the studio, that doesn’t excuse the flat production values on this album. Clutch is a metal band that thrives on the extra oompa-pa of their considerable bottom end. Kim Coletta would have completely kicked Robbins’ ass if the basslines on For Your Own Special Sweetheart sounded like they do here.

About the only aspect of the sound mix that isn’t curiously muted are Neil Fallon’s vocals. While its no surprise that he’s fond of pop-culture references, his lyrics are now veering dangerously close to self-parody, eschewing any kind of cogent storytelling in favor of being the aural equivalent of an episode of Family Guy. It now often sounds as if the band is forced to tip toe their way around his flights of fancy, keeping them from establishing a solid groove. The result: too many songs that sound like retreads of their older material.

Like every Clutch album before it, RH/E is frontloaded. There’s no denying that both “The Incomparable Mr. Flannery” and “Burning Beard” kick much ass in spite of the shitty production, and it’s to the band’s credit that “Mice and Gods” is an obvious pick for the first single. RH/E is also the first Clutch album to employ keyboard player Mick Schauer full time, and his Hammond organ tones provide a nice counterpoint to Tim Sult’s guitar, making the hoedown songs “Never Be Moved” and “Gravel Road” sound far less Blueshammer! than one would expect.

But there’s still far too much filler on Robot Hive / Exodus, leaving one with the feeling that Clutch spent far more effort on its elaborate artwork than on its songs. Die hards will unquestionably find more than a few tunes to enjoy here, but newbies would still be advised to stick with Blast Tyrant or 1998’s The Elephant Riders for a taste of the thunderous metal groove that Clutch is still capable of. Clutch remains a unique metal band with a potent live show, but RH/E features minimal evidence to back this up.

Gypsies (minus the Hendrix mastery of course).

It helps that Clutch is anchored by the Frank Zappa meets drill sergeant howling of frontman Neil Fallon, whose easily understood lyrics tend to be chock full of mythology and pop-culture references, just as apt to tell a story as make the listener laugh out loud. He actually strikes me as intelligent, something many of his counterparts have had a difficult time proving in recent years. That the first thing a 1998 website bio of the band pointed out was that they ritualistically eat KFC every Sunday night is telling.

Fallon has stated in recent interviews that a handful of songs on Blast Tyrant comprise some sort of loose story involving the characters "Worm Drink," "La Curandera," and a ship called "The Swollen Goat." This won't help to shake the unfortunate "stoner-rock" tag these guys always seem to get pegged with, but could help to explain the inclusion of more ridiculous artwork within the liner notes. At any rate, the first five songs on Blast Tyrant kick out the jams to the point where any semblance of a storyline becomes entirely secondary to the rock. Even more refreshing is the fact that Clutch treat the word "rock" like nobody since AC/DC, as prior records feature songs entitled "Rock and Roll Outlaw," "Who Wants to Rock?" and they've even titled their website "pro-rock" dot com. Righteous!

However, I have the same problem with Blast Tyrant as I did with 2001's Pure Rock Fury in that the opening barrage of songs kick so much ass that I'm reluctant to listen to the rest of the album. "The Regulator" and "Ghost" are acoustic slow-burners that offer a welcome reprieve from the onslaught, but at 15 tracks and nearly an hour, Blast Tyrant could've increased its potency with a little trimming. In Clutch's defense, perhaps an overstuffed record is a way of making up for the fact that they're a reluctant studio band, consistently waiting three years between records. But 1998's The Elephant Riders was a tidy 10 songs, and yet I'd call that record as close as Clutch has come to a masterpiece; a Civil War themed 90's metal record that I'd speak of in the same breath as Angel Dust and Aenema.

None of the songs on Blast Tyrant sound drastically different from one another, but manage to differentiate themselves via uniformly excellent choruses. Twelve years down the line, Neil Fallon has refined his redneck philosopher shtick to a tee, and while lines like "Ready to rock if ya wanna roll!/Please step away from the vehicle!" look completely silly on paper, you too will pump your fist when Fallon howls them over walls of feedback and Jean-Paul Gaster's thunderous snare drum. The mixture of hilarity and rock power reaches its apex on swingin' first single "The Mob Goes Wild," an anti-establishment rant where Fallon not only suggests that "everybody move to Canada, smoke lots of pot!" but also clues you into the fact that "Condoleeza Rice is nice, but I prefer a-roni."

Blast Tyrant could have benefited from being about fifteen minutes shorter, but it's still an excellent effort that's thankfully bereft of the lifeless sheen and processed angst that's been recently draining the fun out of metal. Even more interesting is the fact that these guys somehow recorded it in Hoboken, New Jersey, a city that continues to produce excellent music despite being host to the cheesiest nightlife on the East Coast (trust me on this one). Although I might suggest that listeners unfamiliar with Clutch begin their collection with The Elephant Riders or the relatively recent Live at the Gogoplex, Blast Tyrant will certainly satisfy the faithful, and serves as an excellent addition to a solid body of work.