Clutch – Book of Bad Decisions
Released: 7th September, 2018
Neil Fallon – vocals & guitar
Jean-Paul Gaster – drums
Dan Maines – bass
Tim Sult – guitar
Clutch are a pretty special band. Not because they’re super hardcore rock stars who everybody knows about and froths over incessantly like rabid wolves despite any and all evidence that they’re not actually especially good; no, things are not at all like that in this story. In fact, it’s more or less the polar opposite of that. For many of you, I’d wager this is the first time you’re hearing the name Clutch mentioned in the musical context. That is precisely why they’re special — they’ve been around for nearly three decades, and in that time they’ve remained largely untainted by the trappings of rock stardom.
Don’t let that preface throw you off — they are incredible musicians, and they’re in the niche they are largely by choice. You see, with conventional fame in the music industry comes a certain amount of concession with having to play by the rules of the label you’re being pushed by: doing things in certain timeframes, in certain ways, and letting the market become a deciding factor in the finer points of all that you do. For the sake of sales and market position, the music may become a synthetic, watered-down representation of what you originally intended it to be. So how do you maintain your artistic integrity while playing ball with the label you happen to find yourself on? Simple, really: you become the label.
That’s exactly what the boys from Maryland did about a decade or so ago in the form of Weathermaker Music. Sure, it places limitations on just how far any one release can carry you in terms of sales, but when you have scores of faithful fans (in this case called ‘Gearheads’) expectantly waiting for your next offering, that doesn’t actually matter. Book of Bad Decisions, their latest offering sits somewhere between the realms of riffing on more of the same, and totally reinvigorating the way they’ve done things for almost as long as I’ve been alive.
On one hand, much of what’s being played is distinctly Clutch – that is, gritty, biting, and seasoned with a take-no-prisoners/play-no-bullshit style that has become something of a hallmark – but a lot of it is tracing over new ground. In many ways, this is thanks to the injection of new blood in the form of producer Vance Powell (White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys, Seasick Steve, Buddy Guy, and a huge cast of others) into the recording process. Where their last release, 2015’s Psychic Warfare, had moments which were more restrained and stripped down, BoBD is largely a snarling precession of energy from go to whoa. Hell, there’s even horns this time (a topic I discussed during my interview with the band’s bassist, Dan Maines earlier in the week).
The thing that strikes me about the record is that it just sounds outright bigger. There’s more going on, everywhere, and the more you listen, the more you’re bound to hear. If you’re familiar with their previous works, that’s not an easy ask.
The other thing is that this was deliberately recorded in such a way to encourage not perfection, but passion — the polished, technical, sterile productions that have become a staple of modern recording techniques had no place in this studio this time out. I’m currently sitting in my office in downtown Hobart listening through a pair of canalphones, but if I close my eyes, I still get the tingles like a good live performance; there’s artifacts that tell you that this is exactly how things would be if Neil Fallon and Co. were wailing at you from a stage in a club at 11:30 on a Tuesday night. That’s because both Powell, a veteran of concert sound production — and Clutch themselves, created this album in that very manner. Instead of instruments being tracked individually in isolated takes and then composited, the tracks were performed live as a unit. In reality, this is ultimately a live album (although, they have 5 of those very things already) – it just so happened to be recorded in a studio in Nashville, instead of on stage in front of a couple of hundred Gearheads. Fitting, really, for a band that’s described themselves over the years as a ‘reluctant studio band’.
On deeper listens, I’m recalled of the great road albums of history — you know the ones, they attack you with huge, gravelly vocals and driving riffs over the top of a rhythm section thumping like a Hemi, beckoning you onto empty highways into the inky night — a fact that can make it tricky to listen to while sitting still in your office. It’s energetic in a way that’s sort of hard to properly quantify until you experience it, and in many ways I suspect that’s beneficial to the cause. Where many albums you’d go in and listen to them, this one is a much more visceral experience.
There’s similarity to bands like Motörhead, Chrome Division, and Monster Magnet, but ultimately their sound is still distinctively their own: hard rock built around a central core of technical proficiency. Hell, their website is entitled PRO-ROCK so you know they take this shit seriously. And it shows.
Neil Fallon has become somewhat infamous for his often cryptic lyrical output, to the point his own band don’t always know what he’s talking about. Book of Bad Decisions is no different on the whole, although some topics are plainly obvious. For instance, one of the singles which has been offered to punters already, “Hot Bottom Feeder”, delivers an ode to a ‘transcendent creature’ that’s ‘one hundred million years old’ in the form of a recipe for Maryland crab cakes. Do not adjust your set, you read that correctly — crab cakes. While it’s not the first song recipe I’ve heard (that auspicious title goes to Tool‘s “Die eier Von Satan” some 22 years earlier, almost to the day), it’s certainly the first I’ve heard that champions crustaceans in doing so.
It’s not all crab cakes, though. There’s a huge breadth of topics covered — many of them drawing from nearly three decades of experiences taking the show on the road. Others are more personal, like “Sonic Counselor”, detailing the line that’s straddled between being merely a musician and that music being therapy for listeners when they need it most. Then there’s “How To Shake Hands”, a furious assault on the voting process and the executive branch as a whole. Others, oddly enough, seem to detail not much at all — “Weird Times” comes to mind here. But don’t take that to mean that it’s lyrically or vocally vacant; as ever, Fallon‘s vocals are utterly booming, sounding like they’re being barked out by a rugged woodland man 13 feet tall and made of pure, flaming lead shot and pig iron.
There’s a lot of high points on the record. “In Walks Barbarella”, “Emily Dickinson”, and “Spirit of ’76” are all particular favourites, with “Gimme The Keys” and the title track, “Book of Bad Decisions” being another couple to look out for. Although in saying that, trying to pick favourites is in futility — the entire thing functions as a singular unit, with no real let-off of the throttle from the starting note.
The riffs are huge, and peppered with gritty solos. The beats roll at you like being trapped in a huge swell. Really, the record just sounds absolutely huge. I don’t think I can give it high enough praise, but I’ll just say that it’s slotted in as my second favourite release of the year.
There’s only so much I can say on the topic, ultimately. If you know Clutch, you know what you’re in for, for the most part. If you aren’t, well, this may just be the record to sway your favour in a way that previous ones have not.
If you’re a fan of rockin’ out, give it a run. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Clutch – Book of Bad Decisions tracklisting
1. Gimme the Keys
2. Spirit of ’76
3. Book of Bad Decisions
4. How to Shake Hands
5. In Walks Barbarella
6. Vision Quest
7. Weird Times
8. Emily Dickinson
9. Sonic Counselor
10. A Good Fire
11. Ghoul Wrangler
12. HB Is in Control
13. Hot Bottom Feeder
14. Paper & Strife