It's been quite a while since I wrote a review of anything. I'm not a big fan of the review format, purely because it tends to strive for objectivity in judging something that, for most people, will simply boil down to a matter of subjective tastes. I don't enjoy trying to write as if I'm an authority on subjects that I invariably know very little about. I'm much better at trying to articulate the reasons why I like something myself, which is why I've historically favoured penning personal opinion pieces on my blogs rather than reviews.
Today I figured I'd try and go against that, and write a review of one of my favourite albums so far this year - Clutch's Earth Rocker. In writing this review, I've tried to marry my usual opinion-driven approach to writing with a more authoritative voice more characteristic of a review. I don't know how successful I've been, so I guess I'll let you be the judge. I certainly enjoyed writing it, though, if only because it gave me an excuse to re-spin what is an awesome album. I posted the original version of this review on my Last.fm journal. That version is full of nice links and pretty pictures, so if you'd prefer to read it in its original form, here's a link to the journal. Otherwise, I've copied the text over below. I'll also embed a YouTube video of the full album. If you have forty-five minutes to spare, give it a listen - it's an incredible rock record.
It's a very pleasant Saturday evening at the start of our British summer, I'm kicking back in a comfortable chair, laptop perched on my knees, with an ice cold beer at my side and music blasting out of the speakers at the far end of the room. Usually in these situations the music is auxiliary to everything else, a soundtrack to the pleasantries of the evening, but that's not the case here. The album in question is Earth Rocker, the latest record from American rock outfit Clutch, and the one I'm reviewing in this journal entry. This evening it's the music that takes centre stage, the beer and pleasant weather merely accompaniments to what is almost certainly my favourite album of 2013 thus far.
I first encountered Clutch earlier this year, after the guitarist in my band Sudden Gunfire proposed we learn to play their song Cypress Grove. I downloaded Blast Tyrant and began listening to the track, and fell in love with it instantly. When we met up to play the song the following week, I'd already listened to it around thirty times, and the album as a whole was creeping up my charts too. It wasn't long before my 'new band curiosity' led me to discover that Clutch had a new album out, and so I wasted no time in picking it up. It's been on near constant rotation ever since, and with very good reason - it's a bloody good album!
Opening title track Earth Rocker lays a perfect foundation for the remainder of the album. The rocking riffs and the boisterous vocals of Neil Fallon combine to relay a clear message - this is an all-out rock record, and a damn good one at that. It's followed by Crucial Velocity, which juxtaposes a brooding, sinister verse riff with an explosive chorus. Crucial Velocity also establishes a political undertone that's present through a fair portion of the album, whether overtly (D.C. Sound Attack!) or in a much more fantastical sense (Unto the Breach). That the album manages to allude to world events in a way that's unobtrusive and doesn't negatively affect its hard-rocking ethos is a testament to its quality.
While most of the album sticks to the hard-rocking archetype, there's plenty of proof here that Clutch are by no means a one-trick pony. The most obvious example of this is Gone Cold, a laid-back number that holds its own beautifully among the bellowing vocals and thunderous drums of the other tracks. Its position as the sixth track on the eleven-song record lets it serve as a welcome reprieve from the heavier stuff, letting the listener catch their breath after the first five tracks and ready themselves for the remaining five. It's definitely no slouch itself, though - the guitar line and lyrics sound like something out of a Western, but have an ethereal quality that conjures up images of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series in my mind. It's a change of pace, but it's definitely not filler.
In fact, that's one thing I noticed almost instantly about Earth Rocker - not one of its eleven tracks is filler. Absolutely none of it. Take the track in seventh position as an example. Normally by this point of an album's running order, a band start to lose steam and string together their lesser tracks as a buffer between the singles-heavy opening half and the epic finale. In contrast, Clutch follow Gone Cold with The Face, a monstrous epic that juxtaposes biblical imagery with rock vernacular to paint some incredible mental images:
One thousand Les Pauls burning in a field,
What rabid religion poisons their minds?
One thousand Jazzmasters thrown into the sea,
What measure of madness governs their time?
From The Face right through to its closing seconds, Earth Rocker refuses to let up. Fallon has a unique way with words, and his knack for off-kilter world-building puts on its best display in Cyborg Bette, a raucous number chronicling a dysfunctional relationship with a robotic girlfriend. At the other end of the spectrum is subsequent track Oh, Isabella, a track that almost verges on progressive rock with its sweeping narrative and vivid imagery. Finally, album closer The Wolf Man Kindly Requests... brings things full-circle with an enormous chorus and some interesting tempo changes that epitomise the record as a whole - hard-rocking, but keen to explore what's outside the box and ensure things don't become stale.
With every track a winner and no filler in sight, Clutch manage to deliver a stunner with Earth Rocker. It's rare to find a rock record this focused that also manages to deliver such variety and ambition within its seemingly restrictive scope. I've been lucky enough to pick up a ticket for the band's live performance at the Kentish Town Forum in London next week, and I cannot wait to see these songs come to life in a live setting. In a year that's seen strong releases by the likes of Biffy Clyro, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Steven Wilson, Earth Rocker has subverted my expectations and left me feeling almost certain what my album of the year will be, despite there being half of 2013 still to unfold and numerous unreleased albums yet to be discovered. I honestly don't think I can offer it a better compliment than that.