Forget whatever you thought about Clutch. Earth Rocker crumples up the bad categories that have miscast them for years — stoner rock, post-hardcore, metal, grunge — and leaves no question about what they are: a damn good rock and roll band.
Earth Rocker is a solid, straight-up rock and roll album, exactly what the band had in mind for their tenth studio album, now that their Weathermaker Records label is fully up and running. “It might be the best Clutch album that has ever existed,” says guitarist Tim Sult.
It's a concise, efficient album. That was the point, says drummer Jean-Paul Gaster. “We really tried to reign in the jam aspect of the band. We like to improvise a lot, but this album, we really wanted stuff mapped out. We wanted to go into the studio fully armed to make a really powerful record.”
“I'm excited about its succinctness, and how balls-to-the-wall it is,” says frontman Neil Fallon. “The length of an LP is optimal for enjoying a body of new music, approximately 40- 45 minutes. There's something to be said about Side A and Side B. It's more cinematic, and that was the approach.”
The album began taking shape when Clutch toured with Mötorhead, then Thin Lizzy. Revisiting those two favorite bands, they were able to apply their own experience as musicians to better understand the dynamics of their heroes. “The songwriting process happened around the time of those tours, so that really sank into our writing,” Sult recalls. “Maybe people expected us to go more acoustic or bluesy, but this album definitely showcases a riffs-in-your-face kind of style. These songs ended up being faster and a bit more rocking.”
“Overall, we wanted the album to pick up the pace a little bit,” bassist Dan Maines explains. “Songs developing at a faster tempo led to a very straightforward songwriting approach.”
That songwriting simplicity is also indirectly a result of the Basket Of Eggs EP issued two years ago with the Weathermaker re-release of Blast Tyrant. “That acoustic stuff represents a new style of writing for us,” Maines says. “It kind of forces you to strip down what you're playing. We had almost two years to spend on the writing process, and we had a lot of ideas. Having two years allowed us to trim the fat.”
Clutch are passionate students of rock and roll, and music in general. Gaster's love of a good shuffle brought that rhythmic approach to nearly half the album. Professor Longhair's “Bald Head” — notably the loping style of Earl Palmer's swinging eight notes — was a direct influence on Earth Rocker. So was Thin Lizzy drummer Brian Downey, also a shuffle monster.
“When you hear a light shuffle, or the brushwork on 'Gone Cold,' at first it can be a head- scratcher,” says Fallon. “But when you join in, you will be taken to a place you wouldn't have gone by yourself.”
Fallon's reputation as a clever lyricist will likely grow once people hear Earth Rocker. His approach is similar to writing fiction. “You've got to do it convincingly. There's a bit of theater to it, in a way. The four minutes a song is being recorded or performed, I can convince myself that I'm an expert on whatever subject I'm singing about, even if I don't know exactly what it is.”
“There are some tips of the hat to rock and roll history in the lyrics that I enjoy singing because they reference the album in a bigger picture. 'Rocket 88' is considered the first rock and roll song that used distortion. That lyrical reference on 'Crucial Velocity' kind of fuels Earth Rocker as a whole with that back story. It's American myth, even though it really happened.”
Not everything on Earth Rocker is strictly vintage rock and roll. Maines made sure his love of the aggression and minimalism of Bad Brains and Fugazi was applied to these tracks. “The simpler the better, and I really tried to keep it streamlined and a little more focused.
Whatever came to mind first was pretty much what I stuck with throughout the whole recording process. I didn't feel the need to try to over complicate the parts.”
The influence of their favorite bands might have inspired Earth Rocker, but continuous growth as players also affected the album. “You wouldn't have a song like 'Earth Rocker' five years ago,” Gaster insists. “We've continued to grow on our instruments, finding our own voices. Hopefully, you hear that on the new songs.”
Behind the scenes, Earth Rocker is also a result of an inordinate amount of preparation for Clutch. The album was entirely plotted out before recording even started at The Machine Shop in Belleville, NJ, with veteran producer Machine. “In the past, we would go into the studio and write,” says Fallon. “That never worked out to anyone's satisfaction. It was really important to do a lot of pre-production, knowing exactly what we would be doing when we went into the studio. It was crucial that we did all that prior to hitting record.”
“It was so mapped out that we weren't even in the studio together. You had to take a lot on faith. But once you know a part inside and out, you can move on to worrying about performance. If you're trying to remember it, then you're not playing from the heart — you're playing from the brain. That always sounds stale on playback.”
The Earth Rocker sessions were largely based on faith for Sult, a guitarist more attuned to riffs than solos. “I would have never expected to be playing as many solos,” he says. “On this album, they definitely had more of a direction than they usually do. It definitely took a lot more concentration, but I walked away from this album liking them more than I have on any other album.”
“I just decided to trust the producer this time and not try to second guess too much. Having Machine there really helped. He's very opinionated on what it should be, as far as performance goes. He definitely pushed us in a direction we normally wouldn't go.”
It was Machine's idea to replicate the flow of their live set with the running order of Earth Rocker. “He kind of made a set list of songs we do live at festivals,” Fallon explains. “He wanted to reproduce that energy in an album. He pointed things out to us, bringing us back to listening to ourselves as a fan would, to make an album that could be played beginning to end at a show, and everyone would dig it.”
“There's a certain energy to our shows that we've had difficulty capturing on tape,” Maines admits. “I think this record comes closer to really capturing that energy of Clutch live. It's a very balanced album. There's no B-side material. It's an album of A-sides. That sounds pretty bold and confident, but that's the way we feel about Earth Rocker.”
Every culture has its own set of cryptic texts.
They're the forbidden tomes of wisdom which governing powers will deny knowledge of and ban. They're usually thought-provoking. They're typically dangerous. They're often revolutionary. It might seem impossible to keep anything private in the modern age of Facebook and Twitter where everyone's dirty laundry is up for a comment. Nevertheless, the most impactful art remains the most mysterious. Apocryphon, which literally translates to "secret writing", is the perfect moniker for The Sword's fourth full-length album and first for Razor & Tie. Wrapping poetic and poignant imagery in a haze of crushing riffs and ethereal melodies, the Austin, TX quartet delivers haunting, hypnotic, and heavy rock. The group—John D. Cronise [Vocals, Guitar], Kyle Shutt [Guitar], Bryan Richie [Bass], and Santiago “Jimmy” Vela III [Drums]—is about to let the world in on a little secret...
Coming off 2010's acclaimed concept album Warp Riders, The Sword approached their latest offering from a new perspective. Instead of recording in Austin, they holed up in Baltimore with producer J. Robbins [Clutch, Jawbox] for five weeks to craft Apocryphon in the summer of 2012.
"It felt like a fresh start," affirms Shutt. "We always made our records in Austin. This is the first time we left the city to live somewhere and make music. It was good to shake things up. Jimmy had just joined the band. We had new management, and we had just signed to Razor & Tie. There was a strange energy in Baltimore, and it fit with our attitude."
Cronise elaborates, "The music is also lyrically different. There's not as much storytelling as on previous albums. There are songs about real life subjects. Warp Riders was a big undertaking. I wrote a sci-fi story, and we made a record about it. This was more stream-of-consciousness. In a way, I realized music as a vehicle for expressing my own views and thoughts. I shied away from that before in favor of entertaining people with colorful narratives. This is where I'm at."
Cronise actually turned to various texts while penning lyrics this time around. With an eerie synth, captivating refrain, and pummeling guitars, the title track references his deep and calculated research.
"The word Apocryphon came up while I was researching Gnosticism, early Christianity, theosophy, and other esoteric subjects," he goes on. "They're books that were either banned or removed from the biblical canon. The early church fathers felt that these teachings were either too advanced or dangerous for the masses to be exposed to because they encouraged thought that was antithetical to the church’s system of control, so they were considered heretical and dubbed apocrypha. You've got to look beyond what you're told to the totality of knowledge available to approach any sort of true understanding."
At the same time, he'd also immersed himself in a healthy dose of science fiction such as Phillip K. Dick's VALIS and the work of Michael Moorcock. One song "Dying Earth" nods directly to Jack Vance's science fiction series of the same name with an apocalyptic buildup and distorted crash. Meanwhile, the first single "Veil of Isis" careens from a propulsive beat and kinetic riff into an impressive groove. It illuminates another side of Apocryphon.
"That's one of the more metaphysical tracks on the record," continues Cronise. "Some of it is about Isis and the concept of the mother deity. It gets into Egyptian cosmology and talks about cycles of nature, which is a theme that recurs in various places throughout the album."
"It's the next logical step for The Sword," adds Shutt. "It's got a big-ass riff and chorus. There's a solid and memorable groove." Sonically, Robbins encouraged The Sword to tap into something raw. As a result, the album echoes with insurmountable intensity. "We loved what he did with Clutch, and they highly recommended him," recalls Shutt. "He really helped us capture the dirty, grittiness in the songs. It was there, but he knew what we wanted, what we were going for, and how to communicate it."
That vision even comes across in the ornate cover art by famed artist and writer J.H. Williams III. Cronise sought out the Eisner and Harvey-award winning artist behind Promethia, Batwoman, and Detective Comics for artwork, and Williams excitedly obliged. "I really wanted him for the cover," smiles Cronise. "I've been a fan for a long time, and what he came up with is mind-blowing. It's more intricate and involved than our previous album artwork. There's so much to it. It gives the people who buy the CD, LP, or cassette—yes, I said cassette—a beautiful artifact to look at."
The Sword consistently give their audience a fully realized experience, though. They began turning heads with Age of Winters in 2006 and its 2008 follow-up God of the Earth. Metallica hand-picked them for a worldwide tour, and they've shared the stage with everyone from Motorhead to Ozzy Osbourne. Their music has been prominently utilized in films such as Jennifer's Body and Jonas Åkerlund’s Horsemen as well as the best-selling video game Guitar Hero: Metallica. Meanwhile, in 2010, Warp Riders reached #42 on the Billboard Top 200. They've also received widespread critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone, Outburn, The Washington Post, and more. 2012 saw them ink their deal with Razor & Tie, and a whole new chapter has begun.
Ultimately, The Sword will continue to reveal what other artists won't. "To some degree, it's always been about escapism," concludes Cronise. "Music is supposed to transport people somewhere away from their daily lives. For Apocryphon, the idea was to do that in a more introspective and philosophical manner. I'd like it if listeners think a little bit more about life, their existence, and their place in the universe while taking this trip."
That's one secret truly worth sharing.