A band that has been touring and producing new music at a merciless pace for a quarter of a century has every right to take a breather now and then. To fade a bit. To let their wagon wear comfortable ruts in the road and just sort of push it from city to city to increasingly less exciting shows played in decreasingly large venues for a dwindling audience of grumbling die-hard fans who’ve become oddly resentful of their beloved band, using them as an avatar for their own fear of the unstoppable progress of decay.
Counterpoint: being a Clutch fan. This is not to say every release has been great nor every show a barnburner. The past two albums were flawed and failed to land quite as effectively as their more accomplished predecessors. 2009’s Strange Cousins From the West was particularly aimless and suffered from incredibly poor production that required the listener to crank their volume to hear it, much as one does when a Doors song comes up on a playlist. The most recent release, Earth Rocker (2013), was decent but uninspired, far too polished and lacking much in the way of the experimentation and weird fun that infuse the best Clutch albums. That said, overall the band’s record, both in the studio and in live performance is strongly in the positive category. But as time marches on, each new release announcement brings with it a distasteful mash of emotions: excitement for new material poisoned by a nagging fear. What if they don’t have anything left? What if it sucks?
Enter Psychic Warfare; hoo boy, does it not suck. Possessing an energy not seen in a decade since 2005’s near-perfect Robot Hive/Exodus, the new album also shares with that classic LP a sense of inspired fun that feels irresistible and addictive. Dan Maines’ reliably exploratory basslines and Jean-Paul Gaster’s underrated drum work are as lively and forceful as ever. Tim Sult’s unmistakable and versatile performance on lead guitar explores territories both familiar and strange, swinging effortlessly from soulful to artful to crushingly heavy with veteran ease. Clutch’s genius brain, Neil Fallon, is at his explosive best, shouting, roaring, crooning, mumbling his brilliant, bizarre lyrics like the mad Delphic Baptist Oracle he’s always been.
Right out of the gate, this one is a house on fire. First single “X-Ray Visions” is a classic Clutch blaster, packed with burly momentum and Fallon’s wild-eyed ravings at their Art Bell/X-Files extreme. Tambourines add a shoulder shake to a chorus that would kick enough ass without the extra percussion, but this one goes to eleven. Nothing new from them here, just working once again with a formula they’ve perfected to excellent effect.
Thankfully, this album is not exclusively based on that formula. There’s a few different sounds here, like Sult’s twangy, classic-rock guitar lead in the funky, swaggering “Your Love Is Incarceration”. This track also reintroduces the cowbell to the Clutch roster of instruments, a welcome sound largely missing since the funkier Jam Room days. Sci-fi tale “Firebirds” has a deep, raging tone much more akin to straight heavy metal than the band’s usual, and it adds an edge to the track that plays amusingly with a story about a strange woman demanding energy weapons.
There are, of course, a couple of forays into the ‘Clutch Ballad’ territory which has been a factor on each album since Blast Tyrant’s “Regulators” and “Ghost”. These too are fantastic, especially “Our Lady of Electric Light”, a swimmy, eerie western gothic featuring spookily reverbed guitars and a great vocal performance from Fallon, whose ghost story lyrics are complimented by bluesy passion and even a bit of harmony. Album closer “Son of Virginia” is the other slow-burner; a cryptic story of southern heritage, talking cigar-chomping bipedal dogs, and tomb exploration. All that bonkers storytelling is set within a warm blanket of atmospheric, layered guitars you can just feel are laying back and waiting to unleash a simply crushing chorus. When it arrives, the effect is well known to the Clutch fan; neck muscles slowly engage the head in an inexorable bobbing until the madness passes.
Forced to provide a criticism, I’d say the bracketing concept, essentially that the whole album is the sworn statement of an unknown interviewee is unnecessary. Intro skit “The Affidavit” in which a man (Fallon) apparently invites another to provide testimony leads straight into “X-Ray Visions” and “Son of Virginia” offers a stinger in which the interviewer departs, disbelieving and unsatisfied. It’s silly, but easy to ignore. Also questionable was separating “Doom Saloon” from “Our Lady of Electric Light”, as the former is simply the musical intro to the latter. They belong together and would not benefit from the effect of a shuffled playlist.
Psychic Warfare is album packed with mythology, broken hearts, restless spirits, paranoia, brushes with the law and about a thousand other lunatic things woven into bright coherence by a quartet of American masters. It is also an album about energy; a mad vitality courses and crackles through the tracks in a way I legitimately did not expect from such veteran road-dogs. In a year where I have consistently been pleasantly surprised by old bastards seemingly popping up young again (Faith No More, Refused), I felt like I was bound to come up snake-eyes at some point. Not on this roll. For a band fond of often opaque album titles, Psychic Warfare could not possibly be a better descriptor of the music contained within. Mental, brutal, strange, cerebral, aggressive. Prime Clutch.