Sunday, June 12, 2011

Lost Classics - Clutch 'The Elephant Riders' (1998 , Columbia Records)

What comes to mind when one thinks of elephants?
SIZE, that’s right!
And what comes to mind when one thinks of Clutch?
Also Size! Very good!
Let’s talk a bit about that wonderful occasion in 1998 when the two had a chance to meet.

Unlike their earlier hardcore orientated outings, this was the pivotal third album that saw Clutch, now enjoying major label backing from Columbia Records, indulge their southern rock influences to the fullest extent yet. Add to this, a fascinating chilled-but-heavy record production and we begin to see the Clutch that we know and love ever-so-much today. That’s not to say they abandoned what they knew and at which they were good; third track, ‘Eight Times Over Miss October’ is constructed with a selection of riffs that Greg Ginn in the later days of Black Flag wouldn’t say no to.

Neil Fallon, our favourite lyrical mad-scientist, is in absolute top form throughout this sonic adventure. As if challenging some sort of punk rock taboo, Mr. Fallon decides to take us through a labyrinth of oddly mundane and earthy lyrical content. Songs about such down-to-earth topics as recycling and being a model neighbour such as that of track seven ‘Green Buckets’ for example: “I would like to love ya, I sure would treat you right, we could take the trash out every Thursday night.” Listening to which I can picture in my mind’s eye, Fallon sitting at a kitchen table in the late morning, with a cup of tea and a writing pad, calmly penning out a few lines.

Vocally Fallon takes his already powerhouse voice to the limit of its range on this record. Want proof? Take a few minutes to listen to the record’s opening track up until its ten ton chorus! A man shouting “EL-A-PHANT riders to the North” hasn’t sounded quite as menacing since Hannibal was spotted by some luckless Italian chap in 218 BCE.

Similar to Fallon’s choice of lyrics, Guitarist Tim Sult lathers the sound of this record with guitar tones that fool the ear and brain into thinking they are heavier than they really are. Think early Sabbath records, or any heavy records of that era on which the guitars are surprisingly low gain by today’s standards but still come across weighty as swollen bollix (‘balls’, for our non Ireland and Britain readers). That potent mix of Les Paul guitars (tomatoes!) with P-90 pickups (bacon!), for good mix throw in an old school Wah sound (toast!) and give the audience all manner of Hendrixesque tricks and tones (marmalade!), send the whole lot through some vacuum tube driven amplifiers flooded with electricity (THE GRILL!!!), the result is a Full Irish Breakfast of Moorish Rock ‘n’ Roll nutrition that keeps the belly full and the spirits high for the rest of the day! Sound tasty or wha’? Sult proclaims his love for the Wah effect all over this record and uses it in all the right places, on rhythm as well as lead parts. The verse of ‘The Yeti’ would not be the same without it.

A much more traditional aspect to the sound of this record is the bass sound courtesy of Dan Maines. It is low and thumpy and nicely high in the mix, often times equaling or occasionally overtaking the guitar in the mix. It makes me think of the tones used by Motown bass players in the mid 60’s who knew that they were the steam behind the Soul train. Muchos Veses features a cool overdriven bass sound, complimented by tongue-in-cheek lyrics and a horn interlude much in the style of The Melvins in their funnier moods.

Drummer Jean Paul Gaster takes a curious backseat on this outing. Keep things nice and chilled and forever funky, only letting rip with the heaviness when the situation demands. Perhaps he was stoned? Who knows? That’s not for me to speculate. But make no mistake; his playing is as inventive and impressive as it is on any other Clutch record. An interesting amount of playing around with time signatures is going on here, I am not certain if I should attribute this to Gaster but he is the drummer after all. The verse of the aforementioned ‘Eight Times Over Miss October’ being in 5/4 time by my humble count.

Despite this laidback approach taken throughout the bulk of the record, Clutch maintain their unpredictable edge with closing track ‘Dragonfly’, a thorough bruiser weighing in at the very end of the record (I understand some versions contain hidden tracks but for the sake of simplicity I’ll call Dragonfly the last track of the album). It’s lighthearted, wah wahing intro on a single, non-threatening guitar is instantly blown away by the entire band bursting out with a signature riff followed by the unnerving chorus, and itself followed by some brief but ghostly slide guitar. The whole lot together becomes one gargantuan voice and says; “Yeah, it has all been pretty chilled but don’t get to comfortable mate…”

And my favourite word of this review has been: chilled. Oh, and don’t forget to listen to Elephant Riders too, that’s kinda been the point of this thing.

Edward Gerard Brophy
For Bornagainnihilist 2011

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