High expectations inevitably accompany every new Clutch album. But that's what you get when you're sitting on probably the longest active streak of excellent albums amongst modern hard rock bands. And when you've built one of the most dedicated fanbases in said genre through touring relentlessly, and putting on quality shows night after night after night.
And by Clutch's standards, it's been a fair while between drinks, with their last studio outing being 2009's Strange Cousins from the West. So yes, expectations were riding pretty high for Earth Rocker.
And you know what? It delivers on every count. This isn't just a good album, it's another great Clutch album - an album that gets me excited about this band, excited about their back catalogue, just excited about music in general.
Earth Rocker kicks off with a title track that really sets the tone for the rest of the album. "What's this about some dB limit? Sorry, I can't hear none" muses singer Neil Fallon. It's essentially a declaration of hard rock warfare - this album is the most straight-up, ass-kicking rock and roll record that the band have produced in their two-plus decades to date.
At it's simplest, Earth Rocker is five excellent, fast hard rock tracks, followed by a slow, groovy one, followed by five more excellent, fast hard rock tracks.
That might be something to do with recent tours with the likes of Motorhead and Thin Lizzy, but equally, this is a band who have proven they are unafraid to head off in whatever creative direction they damn well feel like. Up to and including songs about kraken, John Wilkes Booth (and, for that matter, Abraham Lincoln), festive meals, burning beards and so forth.
On that note, the lyrical content this time around is somewhat less cryptic for the most part, though certainly no less intriguing. The Face sees some of the most vivid imagery Clutch has ever created - lines like "1000 Les Pauls burning in a field, what rabid religion poisons their minds?".
For the most part, the quirkiness and density that pervaded the aptly titled Strange Cousins has been replaced by catchiness. It's something the band have flirted with previously on tracks like The Mob Goes Wild and 50,000 Unstoppable Watts - this time around it's in full effect, with most of the songs bearing a massive payload of a chorus. My personal favourites in that regard would have to be The Wolfman Kindly Requests ("Party's over you've all go to go... the wolf man is coming out!") and DC Sound Attack ("I'm a warmonger, baby... I've got blood in my eyes and I'm looking at you").
The sheer musical chops of this band are by now very well-established, so it will suffice to say that musically, the performances are all excellent even by Clutch's own lofty standards. There are very few bands who could maintain such a combination of speed, power and precision throughout - whilst also adding in plenty of clever details (personal favourite: JP's ride and hi hat cymbal work on Wolfman). And Neil has a ton of presence throughout, delivering every line with force and venom.
It's a very consistent record throughout - possibly the most consistent of their career and flows well over its 44 minutes. Opening with a couple of fierce numbers in Earth Rocker, and Crucial Velocity, before settling into more of a groove on Mr. Freedom and the outstanding DC Sound Attack. Unto the Breach closes the opening salvo in exactly the sort of way you would expect it to with a title like that.
Gone Cold provides a moment of considered respite and quiet contemplation, before The Face launches us into side B with a kaleidoscope of metaphors and power chords. The tempo is firmly increased once more on Book, Saddle and Go and Cyborg Bette - an ode to the perils of robotic love.
The album closes with a brilliant one-two punch. Firstly Oh, Isabella, which - if not a direct sequel to (Notes from the Trial of) La Curandera from Blast Tyrant - is certainly a spiritual and melodic successor. For all the talk in this song of ships running aground, it's amazing they didn't think to use Dan Maines' basslines just to get said vessel afloat - because he sounds like he could power an entire navy. Pair that with a typically tasteful extended solo from guitarist Tim Sult, and some powerhouse work from drummer JP Gaster throughout, and this is probably the musical high-point of the album.
The second half of the closing double act is The Wolfman Kindly Requests... (working title: Newt Gingrich). Although the track sonically grooves, twists and contorts through its five minutes, there's no mistake from the opening lyrical salvo that Neil is the star on this one: "You wanna know my political persuasion? Well, sugar, I howl at the moon". It is exactly the sort of closing track that makes you want to go back to the beginning and press play once again.
All said, albums like this don't come along very often and Earth Rocker is certainly an early contender for album of the year. If this album doesn't get you excited about music, about this band, well you are missing out. Big time.