Underappreciated Masterpieces: Part II

What is it about certain music – a song, a band, a genre – that makes it appeal to someone?

Some people like their music heavy. They can’t listen to anything unless it pummels their eardrums into bloody submission. Others need integrity; if it sounds forced or contrived they’re not interested. Most people, unfortunately, just crave hooks – surface flourishes that quickly embed themselves deep in the brain and refuse to leave. In a fantastic turn of events, nature has provided a living metaphor for this: the candiru fish of the Amazon.  What this little devil does is wait for you to have the punch-drunk notion of performing a submerged piss in that ridiculous river, at which point it swims up your urine stream and entrenches itself in your urethra.

(Incidentally, that candiru effect explains the majority of pop music, wherein a few professional songwriters have developed such a skill for composing catchy passages that they are an industry in and of themselves. They have conjured up mountains of money by preying on those people who look for nothing more in music than momentary distraction. All they need to do is wheel out a different pretty face once in a while to give the illusion of variety or progress, thus allowing them to continue to peddle their particular brand of lowest common denominator pap. Same old tunes - different set of tits or abs.)

So I’ve been pondering for a while what it is that draws me to certain music, and whether there is any one particular quality that unites all of the divergent strains of music that I love – from Megadeth to Bob Dylan; Howlin’ Wolf to Motley Crue; Led Zeppelin to Sam Cooke. Is there any thread that could be drawn through my whole collection? After a lot of free time, I think I’ve figured out the answers: yes there is a common factor, and the common factor is…balls.

Wait, hear me out: the concept of musical balls is a much more nuanced idea than it initially seems, and though it would be easy to do so, it should not be confused with the much simpler concept of ‘heavy’. (Once, in a bar and already quite drunk, I approached the bartender and demanded that he, ‘gimme a cocktail with balls, dammit!’ I proceeded to gulp down what felt like a liquid slap made of napalm, cursed the bartender and his ancestors, and then downed a few more. The next few days were spent trying to put myself and my memories back together again. Both that bartender and my liver would have benefited greatly from an explanation of how ‘balls’ is something not quite as simplistic as a steamrolling momentum of force.) Balls can be present in any genre; any artist that displays a mixture of integrity, innovation and passion, and on top of that has a healthy streak of irreverence running through their work is an artist with balls.

Know what else is ballsy? Lengthy preambles. So with that now out of the way…

Blast Tyrant (2004) by Clutch. 

Clutch are an American band made up of Neil Fallon on vocals (and beard), Jean-Paul Gaster on drums (and slightly less beard), Tim Sult on guitar (and a bit less beard) and Dan Mains on bass (and cap). They came together in Maryland in 1990, but since I was two years old at the time I can be forgiven for not paying much attention to them. That excuse for ignorance, though, becomes weaker and weaker as the years go on and then recedes into the distance before vanishing completely; leaving me - as a self-professed music fan - looking like a complete fucking mug. The fact that Clutch did not fully enter my consciousness until Download 2011 is a travesty, but it’s one with a silver lining: due to it being via a live performance, when they did enter, they did so in the way that a tsunami ‘enters’ a small, tropical island, or an earthquake ‘enters’ San Francisco. A strong impression was guaranteed.

In a way, this nonchalant obscurity is one of my favourite things about Clutch – they are not super famous, and they don’t care. When it was Clutch’s turn to play at Download, four unassuming bearded dudes appeared on stage and began setting up Clutch’s equipment. They sound-checked, and then tested the instruments out by starting to play a Clutch song. And then they finished the song and played the rest of the set - because they were Clutch. The message came across as strongly as their songs: we don’t give a fuck about the secondary aspects of music-making; being here and playing in front of fans is the only thing that matters. (Obviously I’m perfectly aware that any number of bands who are not successful enough to have roadies could use this as an excuse, but I’m trying to build up a picture here. Work with me, goddammit!)

Clutch’s musical journey is an interesting one, and a satisfying one to chart. Having started out as a fairly straight-ahead hardcore 90’s punk/metal band - albeit with a distinctively guttural, growly singer and off-kilter, humorous lyrics – over the years they’ve assimilated elements of funk and blues, and their debut, Transnational Speedway League, is a far cry from where  they find themselves now.  Neil Fallon said it best: ‘We’ve been really conscious of the blues over the last couple of years, and you have to admit that the blues really is the source of all rock and roll.’ Amen to that, Neil. A-fucking-men. As well as saying the right things; Clutch do the right things, and they do them the right way. They have sustained their career the good old-fashioned way, through relentless touring and consistent recording. No shortcuts for Clutch.

Blast Tyrant, released in 2004, finds the band at what I consider to be a golden half-way between the extremes of their early heaviness and their latter-day bluesiness. It has riffs that’ll pummel your face into the ground, but there’s also enough groove to spare. The compositions manage to be both incredibly tight, and yet jam-band-loose at the same time. The songwriting is also exceptionally strong, with a mature, lived-in understanding of dynamics – listen to The Regulator for a lesson in how to use an acoustic guitar and light lead work to build up atmosphere and tension before releasing it in a gargantuan way. (Granted, with Fallon’s tree trunk voice you could make a Justin Bieber song sound like the end of the world… No wait, that’s already the case. Correction: you could make it sound like an awesome end of the world.) 

Look, a track listing!

  1. Mercury
  2. Profits of Doom
  3. The Mob Goes Wild
  4. Cypress Grove
  5. Promoter (Of Earthbound Causes)
  6. The Regulator
  7. Worm Drink
  8. Army of Bono
  9. Spleen Merchant
  10. (In The Wake Of) The Swollen Goat
  11. Weathermaker
  12. Subtle Hustle
  13. Ghost
  14. (Notes from the Trial Of) La Curendera
  15. Wysiwyg

That’s a long album. It’s notoriously hard to pull off a long album in such a way that it flows, makes sense and holds your attention. Blast Tyrant does this seemingly effortlessly. I love me a good opening track, and Mercury nails it. It’s a three minute statement of intent that in some ways exemplifies the entire album, as well as Clutch as a whole. Straight out of the gate you have an intricate, intertwined orgy of drums, bass and guitar that leads into a second’s silence, followed by a ground-shaking, bombastic a capella vocal introduction. Three seconds later the two join forces, finish the track off, and from then on the rest of the album could be absolute toss and it wouldn’t matter one bit because you’d still be reeling from that assault. Completely unsurprisingly, though, ‘toss’ is not the word for the rest of the album.

There are weaker tracks on Blast Tyrant (how could there not be, when they are being compared to Mercury, Profits of Doom, The Mob Goes Wild, Cypress Grove, The Regulator, Subtle Hustle and Ghost?) but ‘weaker’ is a relative term – every album has weaker tracks; the real measure is how they work as part of the whole. Some classic albums (*cough*Powerslave*cough*) have incredible opening and closing sections and then a middle that lags. Blast Tyrant spaces out the weaker tracks in such a way that works in their favour – they get buoyed up by their proximity to greatness - and therefore in the whole album’s favour as well.

One of the ironies of writing about the music that I really love is that I start out with the intention of wanting to eloquently elucidate exactly why I love it in order to bring someone else’s mind as close as possible to the point of understanding and of shared appreciation, but then I willfully dumb myself down; I feel that in closely scrutinizing what makes a particular track great I might lose something. Music is magic. I know academically why some of it is good, and some of it’s not, but I prefer to pretend to myself that it’s a purely instinctual and visceral reaction. I almost don’t want to pin down exactly what makes it great – putting concrete words on exactly why a track like Cypress Grove or The Mob Goes Wild makes me lose my shit doesn’t feel right. I‘d prefer to just jab my finger in the direction of those tracks and grunt. After all, you know what they say - a grunt is worth a thousand words. Or, in this case, 1,520 words.

Go listen to this shit!

(Link to part 1)