Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Best gets better

Yesterday was a good day.  My pre-order of the reissue of my favourite album of all time arrived, two weeks before it appears in stores, complete with limited edition t-shirt (075!) and a ton of awesomeness.

What is this great album, you're probably asking.  Well, it's by the mighty Clutch and it's called Blast Tyrant.  You might not have heard of them, or it.  So allow me to explain.  Clutch are a fantastic hard rock group from Maryland, USA, who have been putting out consistently great material for close to two decades now.  Their newer material has some pretty strong blues influences as well, but Blast Tyrant sees them in full-on hard-rock riff-mongering mode.  They seem to be one of those bands that have a major cult following in the US, but less prominence internationally (although their international fans are no less devoted).  Anyway, they're great.  Go buy their stuff.  DO IT!

So anyway, Blast Tyrant is basically their 5th studio album (of eight) and it was originally released in 2004.  It was the first Clutch record I got, although I went to Real Groovy intending to buy Robot Hive/Exodus (their newest album at the time) which I'd seen some intriguing reviews of.  But they didn't have it so I bought Blast Tyrant instead.  And thus began my love affair with a band that I personally think has few equals.  I'll save the full details of that for another time.  For now, Blast Tyrant.

Which admittedly doesn't have the best album art of all time, even if it is distinctive.  That might be its only failing.  Across its 15 tracks (spanning 54 minutes), Blast Tyrant is all killer, no filler.

There are countless things I love about this album, but here's a few:

1. They don't mess around
The first minute of album opener Mercury is an instrumental statement of intent - a rapid-fire barrage of riffs and drum fills, with guitarist Tim Sult, drummer JP Gaster and bassist Dan Maines sounding incredibly tight - before Neil Fallon launches into the cryptic/fantastic opening lyric "Daedalus, your child is falling... and the labyrinth is calling".  Everything about this track commands some sort of attention - whether it's head-banging, air guitar, air drumming, or simply trying to figure out what Neil is actually on about (this is not uncommon in Clutch songs).  This is basically the start of a five-song opening onslaught - the groove-driven, swaggering Profits of Doom, the alarmingly infectious The Mob Goes Wild - at that time the band's biggest hit since Spacegrass almost ten years earlier (but probably since surpassed by Electric Worry).

And then Cypress Grove (moar cowbell and Dio references) and Promoter (of Earthbound Causes) (a stunning, muscular riff and one of the all-time hard rock great choruses):

Ready to rock, if you wanna roll
Please step away from the vehicle
Ragnarock and revolutionise
Gimme just a minute while I clarify
OK, admittedly it sounds better on the record than on a web page.

2. It's a hard, hard-rock record, but not too hard
Fundamentally, this is a hard rock record, but Clutch are astute musicians and they know that turning everything to 11 the whole time isn't sustainable over a whole album.  So we get just enough tracks in there to balance out the heaviness - The Regulator, is a foreboding, slow-burner of track that eventually shifts up a gear with some nice dynamic shifts, and Ghost is equally brooding and well-constructed.

3. The lyrics, oh the lyrics
... are frankly brilliant.  I mean, Clutch rarely disappoint on this front, but this album is something else.  Here's a sample
from Army of Bono:
Your local programming
By the mindless banter of a soulless talking head
And the main chorus:
Don't worry
It's just stigmata
Pass me a napkin
And don't you dare tell your mother
Neil has the rare talent of being able to deliver songs in his distinctive, raw, powerful rock voice, while still enunciating everything incredibly clearly (this is helped even more by a really well-balanced mix), so one can appreciate gems such as the above even more.

4. In-jokes
There's some subtle hints at the band's influences at various points here - the "Holy diver, where you at?" lyric on Cypress Grove (which sounds appropriately reverential now too)... while Worm Drink has a reasonably blatant allusion to Warren Zevon's Werewolves of London.

5. Great production so you can hear the great musicianship

One other facet that the mix lends to this album is the fact that it allows the listener to really appreciate what a tight unit the band are in full flight, but equally it draws out individual instruments really effectively when it needs to.  This is no more obvious than on instrumental closing track WYSIWYG where it's incredibly easy to simultaneously appreciate what each of the different instruments are doing, whilst not detracting from the impact of the whole band.  So you get the full force of Clutch's not inconsiderable individual and collective musical talent (which I should add is always tasteful and never descends into showmanship). 

6. It's a concept album, but not obviously so...
It took a bit of listening, but it did eventually dawn on me that this is a loose concept album about the travels of Worm Drink (who is a demon or something like that), who is a member of the crew of a ship named The Swollen Goat, which is captained by the eponymous Blast Tyrant and tends to cruise around exploring, looting, pillaging and generally doing pirate stuff.  The album's full name in the liner notes is actually Blast Tyrant's Atlas of the Invisible World, Including Illustrations of Strange Beasts and Phantoms.  So maybe Blast Tyrant is sort of a crazy, demonic, pirate version of David Attenborough.  I don't know.

Anyway, Worm Drink gets a bit disillusioned with the whole thing, and deserts.  Of course Blast Tyrant tries to hunt him down, and whilst on the run Worm Drink takes refuge with a girl named La Curandera, but then Blast Tyrant and his crew find them (or at least her) and decide she's a witch and deal with her accordingly.

(I said it was a loose concept album... I didn't say it made sense!)

I don't think every track on the album is part of the concept, but a good number certainly are, and others (such as Profits of Doom) deal with sort-of-related themes.

Anyway, what I like about this is that there are some clever themes that run through the record, and some songs might only have one or two lyrics referencing the main story - but they're there.  It's a clever way of creating an album which is more than just the sum of its parts, while not doing the often-overcooked blatant-concept-album thing. 

7. Stuff grows on you
There are some tracks here that will initially catch your attention, thanks to either great riffs, brilliant lyrics or the fact that they're just damn catchy (such as The Mob Goes Wild).  My personal favourites have actually changed over time - it took about three years before I decided (In the Wake of) The Swollen Goat was probably my favourite and more recently (Notes from the Trial of) La Curandera has begun to threaten it (and not just in the battle of songs-with-bracketed-bits-at-the-start-of-their-names-either).

Look, I could go on about this all day, but I should really also mention the bonus disc, Basket of Eggs, that is what differentiates the reissue from the original, along with some nifty new artwork (and the aforementioned limited edition t-shirt).

Basket of Eggs is basically split between a series of early demos for Blast Tyrant, recorded after the release of 2002's Pure Rock Fury (but recently remastered), and some new acoustic recordings - including a new song and re-interpretations of older tracks.

The Polar Bear Lair demos are solid, but not brilliant, on a standalone basis - they're predictably lacking the polish and refinement - both musical and lyrical - that went into prior to the recording of Blast Tyrant.  What they do provide, however, is an insight into just how much effort went into the songs on Blast Tyrant - Cattle Car evolved into Cypress Grove (with mostly different lyrics)... Walpole Man into Army of Bono.  The changes to Promoter and La Curandera are less obvious but still clearly there.  The gem of the bunch here is the rollicking, previously unreleased Steve Doocy.

The acoustic material is the scene-stealer here.  The sole new track is Box Car Shorty's Confession, a jaunty, dixie-blues number, whilst the other four tracks are re-interpretations of older tracks, but all add major spins to their predecessors that fans of the band (myself included) will no doubt adore.  It sounds like a polished, impromptu, 2am-after-a-big-party-let's-mess-with-these-songs-on-acoustic-guitars and it's great. 

Anyway, I've rambled enough for now - as you can see I really do love this album.

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