Every Clutch record is different. Over the course of the Maryland four-piece’s nearly-25 years it has become a stready reasoning that each time out, they’re going to offer something distinct from what preceded. Often, it has felt in listening like one album was trying purposefully not to do what the one before it did, which is how one might account for the shifts between 1993’s Transnational Speedway League debut and their landmark 1995 self-titled sophomore outing, or that album and its follow-up, 1998’s The Elephant Riders, or that album and 1999’s Jam Room and 2001’s Pure Rock Fury, and so on.
Their sound has constantly evolved around a reliable-as-sunrise foundation of songwriting, and with their 11th studio offering and third to be released via their own Weathermaker Music imprint, Psychic Warfare, they manage to expand on the ideas that they brought to 2013’s Earth Rocker (review here) — which itself was another broad turn from 2009’s Strange Cousins from the West — without completely departing the same sphere. In this culture of sequels and reboots, for Clutch to linger a bit longer in a place (sonically; they never actually rest too long in one spot geographically) that suited them so well two years ago feels justified, and for someone who’d perhaps never heard them prior to this record the experience would invariably be otherwise, but as a fan of the band, Psychic Warfare feels defined at least in part by Earth Rocker in a way that, as far as Clutch records go, is the biggest change of all this time around.
Most of that is attributable to the circumstances of Psychic Warfare‘s arrival. True, it puts Clutch — the steady lineup of vocalist Neil Fallon, guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster — back on the every-other-year schedule they maintained up until the surprising four years between Strange Cousins from the West and Earth Rocker, but the reception for the last outing was such that this one seems to have materialized especially quick. Couple that with a return to producer Machine, who helmed Earth Rocker after first collaborating with the band on 2004’s Blast Tyrant, and there is plenty in common between the two outings sound-wise, in the tonal largesse of Sult‘s guitar on cuts like “Firebirds” and “Behold the Colossus,” in the arrangements and treatments on Fallon‘s vocals for “A Quick Death in Texas,” post-intro opener “X-Ray Visions,” and so on, and it becomes even easier to put Earth Rocker and Psychic Warfare side-by-side.
That’s not to say the new record feels like it is meant to be be a carbon-copy of the last. It’s true that “Noble Savage” boasts largely the same thesis and a similarly speedy means of expressing it as “Earth Rocker” itself, but Psychic Warfare has its own personality, even if it has to work harder to put that across in the shadow of the magic Clutch were able to craft two years ago. The 12-track/40-minute offering is loosely tied to a narrative thread in the lyrics, which is something that Blast Tyrant also did, but is clarified here and brought further toward realization with the spoken intro “The Affidavit,” in which someone is told to tell the whole story, start at the beginning. Thus, the album front-to-back becomes the sworn statement. It’s not a concept record in the prog-rock sense, but it’s drawing a line between the songs in a way that the band never has before, concluding likewise in the theme after the hooky, brooding blues of closer “Son of Virginia” has wrapped.
A given arc isn’t really enough to wholly distinguish Psychic Warfare on its own, but that is where the songwriting, as ever, does the work for the band. From “X-Ray Visions” through “Firebirds,” “A Quick Death in Texas,” “Sucker for the Witch” and “Your Love is Incarceration,” Clutch tear into a side A that demonstrates not only a good portion of the breadth of their sound, but the craftsmanship that has made them the influential outfit they are. With Fallon‘s trademarked place-naming lyrical quirk (one could, and should, teach a college class around same) coiling around Sult‘s funked-up riffage and rested on the smooth basslines of Maines or, particularly in the case of “Firebirds” and “Sucker for the Witch,” propelled full-throttle by Gaster‘s drumming, Clutch seem to have added onto their wheelhouse at some point in the last several years, so that they seem equally comfortable belting out “Firebirds” as the immediately-following swing-laden “A Quick Death in Texas,” which veers into call and response cues that it’s hard to imagine their audience not picking up on any one of their nigh-on-constant tours and makes for a dudely high point of the first half.
More subtle is the bounce Maines brings to “Your Love is Incarceration,” a song nearly steamrolled by the momentum Psychic Warfare has built by that point, but which stands out amid all the Clutch-being-Clutch of “Sucker for the Witch” and the paired “Doom Saloon” and “Our Lady of Electric Light,” which follow. “Doom Saloon” is namedropped in “A Quick Death in Texas” as well — it may or may not be the name of their rehearsal spot; something like that — but Sult layers (or it could be Fallon and Sult both) echoing washes of guitar as an extended intro to the slowed-down “The Regulator”-style twang of “Our Lady of Electric Light,” Clutch once again finding that mysterious ground that they seem to have all to themselves somewhere between Southern heavy rock and blues that, miraculously, continues not to sound like a cliché though it’s a mode of working that, between songs like the semi-cover “Gravel Road” from 2005’s Robot Hive/Exodus, “Electric Worry” from 2007’s From Beale St. to Oblivion and “Son of Virginia” still to come here, has been well-established for them. Can’t argue with results.
Can’t stop progress either, as Fallon himself once noted, and it’s true that both “Our Lady of Electric Light” and the closer expand the approach of a song like “The Regulator” such that the Blast Tyrant track is much more ancestor than blueprint these 11 years after the fact. After the quieter moment on “Our Lady of Electric Light,” they return to speedier fare with the fifth-gear “Noble Savage,” the shortest track on Psychic Warfare that’s not an intro at 2:49 and similar as noted in its no-nonsense anthemery to “Earth Rocker,” marked by the motoring riff and Fallon‘s standout chorus line, “Unapologetic lifer for rock and roll.” The subsequent “Behold the Colossus” feels similarly geared to the stage and is a highlight performance from Gaster as well as another infectious hook and arguably the smoothest transition between tracks (where one isn’t an interlude leading to the other, anyhow) as it gives way to “Decapitation Blues,” which began to surface at live shows about a year ago and, like “Your Love is Incarceration,” feels positioned to be somewhat lost but actually finds a distinct ground that’s neither repeating the moves of Earth Rocker nor purposely avoiding them — a genuine moment of progress.
As “Son of Virginia” makes ready to leave one of Psychic Warfare‘s most memorable impressions in its build-to-a-head blues rollout and highlight chorus, one can’t help but be reminded that when the aforementioned Robot Hive/Exodus landed in ’05, its sound also informed by Blast Tyrant before it — though expanded on as well with the inclusion of a full-time organist — it felt very soon between records in a way that seemed to favor the earlier outing. Psychic Warfare doesn’t have the benefit of years of feverish anticipation preceding its release, but still, against seemingly impossible odds, it holds up to its predecessor. Its ultimate place in Clutch‘s discography? Not a thing we’ll know for years. Doesn’t matter. It’s a batch of top-grade tunes from a band whose drive to deliver them is bled across its span, and it answers the question of how the band could ever possibly follow what came before it. Now the question becomes where they go from here.