The Obelisk Presents: The Top 20 of 2013

Posted in Features on December 16th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

Please note:  These are my picks, not the results of the Readers Poll, which is still going on. If you haven’t added your list yet, please do.

It’s always strange to think of something so utterly arbitrary as also being really, really difficult, but I think 2013 posed the biggest challenge yet in terms of getting together a final list of my favorite records. As ever, I had a post-it note on my office wall (when I moved, it moved with me) and I did my best to keep track of everything that resonated throughout the year. I wound up with over 40 picks and had to start putting them in order to whittle the list down.

I wound up with a top 20 that, even though it feels somewhat incomplete, I’ve found that I can at very least live with. That’s what I’ve done for the last week: Just lived with it. Even up to this morning, I was making changes, but in general, I think this gives some scope about what hit me hard in 2013. Of course, these are just my picks, and while things like my own critical appreciation factor in because that affects how I ultimately listen to a record, sometimes it just comes down to what was stuck in my head most often or what I kept putting on over and over.

That’s a simple formula to apply, but still, 2013 didn’t make it easy. Please note as you go through that there are some real gems in the honorable mentions. I thought about expanding the list to 30 this year, but the thought made my skull start to cave in, so I reconsidered.

Anyway, it only comes around once a year, so let’s do this thing. Thanks in advance for reading:


20. All Them Witches, Lightning at the Door


Traditionally, I’ve reserved #20 for a sentimental pick. An album that’s hard to place numerically because of some personal or emotional connection. This year wasn’t short on those, but when it came to it, I knew I couldn’t make this list without Lightning at the Door included, and since it was released just last month as the follow-up to the earlier-2013 Elektrohasch reissue of the Nashville, Tennessee, outfit’s 2012 debut, Our Mother Electricity (review here), I didn’t feel like I’ve had enough time with it to really put it anywhere else. It needed to be here, and so it is, and though I’ve listened to it plenty in the month since its release, I still feel like I’m getting to know Lightning at the Door, and exploring its open-spaced blues rocking grooves. All Them Witches are hands down one of the best bands I heard for the first time this year, and I’m looking forward to following their work as they continue to progress.

19. Queens of the Stone Age, …Like Clockwork

Released by Matador Records. Reviewed June 4.

For a while after I first heard …Like Clockwork and around the time I reviewed it, I sweated it pretty hard. By mid-June, I had it as one of the year’s best without a doubt in my mind. Then I put it away. I don’t know if I burnt myself out on it or what, but I still haven’t really gone back to it, and while the brilliance of cuts like “Kalopsia” and “Fairweather Friends” and “I Appear Missing” still stands out and puts Josh Homme‘s songwriting as some of the most accomplished I encountered in 2013, that hasn’t been enough to make me take it off the shelf. I doubt Queens of the Stone Age will cry about it as they tour arenas and get nominated for Grammy awards, but there it is. I wouldn’t have expected …Like Clockwork to be so low on the list, certainly not when I was listening to “My God is the Sun” six times in a row just to try and get my head around the chorus.

18. I are Droid, The Winter Ward

Released by Razzia Records. Reviewed Sept. 19.

Gorgeously produced and impeccably textured, The Winter Ward by Stockholm-based I are Droid aren’t generally the kind of thing I’d reach for, but the quality of the craft in songs like “Constrict Contract” and “Feathers and Dust” made it essential. Bits and pieces within harkened back to frontman Peder Bergstrand‘s tenure in Lowrider, but ultimately The Winter Ward emerged with a varied and rich personality all its own, and that became the basis for the appeal. As the weather has gotten colder and it’s gotten dark earlier, I’ve returned to The Winter Ward for repeat visits, and as much as I’ve got my fingers crossed for another Lowrider album in 2014, I hope I are Droid continue to run parallel, since the progressive take on alternative influences they managed to concoct was carried across with proportionate accessibility. It was as audience friendly and satisfying a listen as it was complex and ripe for active engagement.

17. Magic Circle, Magic Circle

Released by Armageddon Shop. Reviewed Feb. 18.

There was just nothing to argue about when it came to the self-titled debut from Massachusetts-based doomers Magic Circle, but what worked best about the album was that although the songs were strong on their own and seemed to have lurching hooks to spare, everything throughout fed into an overarching atmosphere that was denser than the straightforwardness of the structures might lead the listener to initially believe. It was a record worth going back to, worth getting lost in the nod of, and as the members are experienced players in a variety of New England acts from The Rival Mob to Doomriders, it should be interesting to find out what demons they may conjure in following-up Magic Circle, if they’ll continue down the path of deceptively subversive “traditionalism” or expand their sound into more progressive reaches. Either way they may choose, the material on their first outing showed an ability to craft an enigmatic, individualized sonic persona that never veered into cultish caricature.

16. Iron Man, South of the Earth

Released by Rise Above/Metal Blade Records. Reviewed Oct. 14.

If you’re into doom and you have a soul, I don’t know how you could not be rooting for Iron Man in 2013. Produced by Frank Marchand and the first full-length from the long-running Maryland doomers to feature vocalist Dee Calhoun and drummer Jason “Mot” Waldmann alongside guitarist/founder “Iron” Al Morris III (interview here) and longtime bassist Louis Strachan. The difference in South of the Earth was palpable even in comparison to 2009’s I Have Returned (review here). With more professional production, excellent performances all around in the lineup, memorable songs like “Hail to the Haze” and “The Worst and Longest Day,” and the considerable endorsement of a release through Rise Above/Metal Blade behind them, the four-piece sounded like the statesmen they are in the Maryland scene and showed themselves every bit worthy of inclusion in the discussion of America’s finest in traditional, Sabbathian doom. May they continue to get their due.

15. Sasquatch, IV

Released by Small Stone Records. Reviewed Sept. 16.

Whether it was what the lyrics were talking about or not, the message of “The Message” was clear: Never count out a catchy chorus. Now in operation for a decade, Sasquatch practice an arcane artistry with their songwriting. Void of pretense, heavy on boogie, they are as genuine a modern extension of classic heavy rock as you’re likely to find. The Los Angeles power trio outdid themselves with IV, veering boldly into psychedelia on “Smoke Signal” and honing their craft over various moods and themes on “Sweet Lady,” “Me and You” and “Eye of the Storm.” They remain one of American heavy rock’s key and consistently underestimated components, and the three years since the release of their third album, III (review here), seemed like an eternity once the quality grooves of “Money” and “Drawing Flies” got moving, the former an insistent rush and the latter open, dreamy and atmospheric, but both executed with precision and confidence born of Sasquatch‘s familiarity with the methods and means of kicking ass.

14. Black Pyramid, Adversarial

Released by Hydro-Phonic Records. Reviewed April 12.

It was hard to know what to expect from Black Pyramid‘s Adversarial, their first release with guitarist/vocalist Darryl Shepard at the fore with bassist Dave Gein and drummer/engineer Clay Neely, but the Massachusetts outfit flourished on tracks like “Swing the Scimitar,” incorporating a heavy jamming sensibility with marauding riffs and grooves carried over from the style of their first two albums. Adversarial took the band to Hellfest in France this past summer, where they shared a stage with Neurosis and Sleep, and whether it was the raging chorus of “Bleed Out” or the clarion guitar line of “Aphelion,” the band showed their war ensemble could not be stopped. Their future is uncertain with Neely having relocated and Gein having an impending move of his own, but if Adversarial is to stand as the final Black Pyramid outing, they will at very least have claimed enough heads in their time to line fence-posts for miles. Still, hopefully they can find some way to continue to make it work.

13. Across Tundras, Electric Relics

Released by Electric Relics Records. Reviewed July 11.

Even the interlude “Seasick Serenade,” just over a minute and a half long, was haunting. Electric Relics marked the first full-length from Nashville’s Across Tundras to be released on their own label and the first since they issued Sage through Neurot in 2011 (review here), and as rolling and exploratory as its vibe was, songs like “Solar Ark,” “Pining for the Gravel Roads” and “Den of Poison Snakes” also represented a solidification of Across Tundras‘ sound, another step in their development that refined their blend of rural landscapes and heavy tones. Issued in April, it’s been an album that throughout the course of the year I’ve returned to time and again, and the more I’ve sat with it and the more comfortable it’s become, the more its songs have come to feel like home, which it’s easy to read as being their intent all along. Guitarist/vocalist Tanner Olson (read his questionnaire answers here), bassist/vocalist Mikey Allred and drummer Casey Perry hit on something special in these tracks, and one gets the sense their influence is just beginning to be felt.

12. Borracho, Oculus

Released by Strange Magic/No Balls/AM Records. Reviewed July 26.

Initially a digital self-release by the Washington, D.C. riff purveyors, Oculus just this month got a tri-color, tri-label and tri-continental vinyl issue, and the fanfare with which it arrived was well earned by the five songs contained on the two sides. Borracho‘s second album behind 2011’s Splitting Sky (review here) also marked a lineup shift in the band that saw them go from a four-piece to a trio, with guitarist Steve Fisher (interview here) stepping to the fore as vocalist in the new incarnation with Tim Martin on bass and Mario Trubiano on drums. The results in songs like “Know the Score” and closer “I’ve Come for it All” were in line stylistically with the straightforward approach they showed on their first offering, but tighter overall in their presentation, and Fisher‘s voice was a natural fit with the band’s stated ethic of “repetitive heavy grooves” — a neat summary, if perhaps underselling their appeal somewhat. Oculus showed both that the appeal of Splitting Sky was no fluke and that Borracho with four members or three was not a band to be taken lightly.

11. Ice Dragon, Born a Heavy Morning

Released by Navalorama Records. Reviewed Aug. 14.

Like the bulk of Ice Dragon‘s work to date, Born a Heavy Morning was put out first digitally, for free or pay-what-you-want download. A CD version would follow soon enough on Navalorama, with intricate packaging to match the album’s understated achievements, taking the Boston genre-crossers into and through heavy psychedelic atmospheres added to and played off in longer pieces like “The Past Plus the Future is Present” and the gorgeously ethereal “Square Triangle” by thematic slice-of-life set-pieces like “In Which a Man Daydreams about a Girl from His Youth” and “In Which a Man Ends His Workweek with a Great Carouse” that only enriched the listening experience and furthered Ice Dragon‘s experimental appeal. Ever-prolific, Born a Heavy Morning wasn’t the only Ice Dragon outing this year, physical or digital, but it stood in a place of its own within their constantly-expanding catalog and showcased a stylistic fearlessness that can only be an asset in their favor as they continue to chase down whatever the hell it is they’re after in their songs and make genuine originality sound so natural.

10. Devil to Pay, Fate is Your Muse

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed March 19.

It seemed like no matter where I turned in 2013, Devil to Pay‘s Fate is Your Muse was there. Not that it was the highest-profile release of the year or bolstered by some consciousness-invading viral campaign or anything, just that once the songs locked into my head, there was no removing them, and whether it was straightforward rockers like “This Train Won’t Stop,” “Savonarola” and “Tie One On,” the moodier “Black Black Heart” or the charm-soaked “Ten Lizardmen and One Pocketknife” — which might also be the best song title I came across this year — it was a pretty safe bet that something from the Indianapolis four-piece was going to make a showing on the mental jukebox if not in the actual player (it showed up plenty there as well). Devil to Pay‘s first album since 2009, first for Ripple and fourth overall, Fate is Your Muse was a grower listen whose appeal only deepened over the months after its release, the layered vocals of guitarist Steve Janiak (interview here) adaptable to the varying vibes of “Wearin’ You Down” and “Already Dead” and soulful in classic fashion. They’ve been underrated as a live act for some time, and Fate is Your Muse translated well their light-on-frills, heavy-on-riffs appeal to a studio setting.

9. Beast in the Field, The Sacred Above, the Sacred Below

Released by Saw Her Ghost Records. Reviewed May 30.

Such devastation. Even now, every time I put on Beast in the Field‘s The Sacred Above, the Sacred Below, it makes me want to hang my head and wonder at the horror of it all like Marlon Brando hiding out in a cave. If anything at all, there wasn’t much I heard in 2013 that hit harder than the Michigan duo’s fifth long-player, released on CD in March through Saw Her Ghost with vinyl reportedly on the way now. Toward the middle of the year, it got to the point where I wanted to go door to door and say to people, “Uh excuse me, but this is absurdly heavy and you should check it out.” I settled for streaming the album in full and it still feels like a compromise. I tried to interview the band, to no avail — sometimes instrumental acts just don’t want to talk about it — but what guitarist Jordan Pries and drummer Jamie Jahr were able to accomplish tonally, atmospherically and bombastically in expansive and overwhelmingly heavy cuts like the 22-minute “Oncoming Avalanche” or the noise-soaked riffing of “Hollow Horn” put The Sacred Above, the Sacred Below into a weight class that it had pretty much to itself this year. It’s a good thing they had no trouble filling that space. I still feel like I haven’t recommended the album enough and that more people need to be made aware of its existence.

8. Beelzefuzz, Beelzefuzz

Released by The Church Within Records. Reviewed Aug. 30.

When I finally listened to Beelzefuzz‘s self-titled debut, I was really, really glad I had seen the three-piece — its members based in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania — play some of the material live. I don’t know if otherwise I’d have been able to distinguish between the progress elements of effects and looping and the live creation of layers and organ sounds through the guitar of Dana Ortt (interview here) and the simple humdrum of studio layering one finds all the time. I almost think for their next record they should track it live, just the three of them, and heavily advertise that fact to help get the point across that it’s actually just three players — Ortt, bassist Pug Kirby and drummer Darin McCloskey (also of Pale Divine) — creating the richness of sound on “All the Feeling Returns” and the eerie, gleefully weird progressive stomp on “Lonely Creatures.” The album became a morning go-to for me, and I don’t know how many times I’ve been through it at this point, but “Reborn” and “Hypnotize” and “Lotus Jam” continue to echo in my head even when it’s been a few days. That said, it’s rarely been a few days, because while I appreciate what the trio accomplish on their first record on an analytical level, the reason it is where it is on this list is because I can’t stop listening to the damn thing. Another one that more people should hear than have heard.

7. Samsara Blues Experiment, Waiting for the Flood

Released by World in Sound/Electric Magic Records. Reviewed Oct. 22.

One of the aspects of Samsara Blues Experiment‘s third offering that I most enjoyed was that it wasn’t the album I expected German four-piece to make. After their 2011 sophomore album, Revelation and Mystery (review here), shifted its focus away from the jam-minded heavy psychedelia of their 2009 debut, Long Distance Trip (review here), my thinking was that they would continue down that path and coalesce into a more straightforward brand of heavy rock. Instead, when the four extended tracks of Waiting for the Flood showed up with no shortage of swirl or sitar or open-ended expansion in their midst, it was a legitimate surprise. Repeat visits to “Shringara” and “Don’t Belong” show that actually it’s not so much that Samsara Blues Experiment turned around and were hell-bent on jamming out all the time, but that rather for their third, they took elements of what worked on their first two LPs and built lush movements on top of those ideas. As a happy bonus, this having grown more and more into their sound has helped push the band — guitarist/vocalist Christian Peters, guitarist Hans Eiselt, bassist Richard Behrens and drummer Thomas Vedder — into their own niche within the wider European heavy psych scene, and they’ve begun to emerge as one of its most enjoyable and consistent acts.

6. Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Mind Control

Released by Rise Above/Metal Blade Records. Reviewed April 8.

Kind of inevitable that there would be a lot of comparisons made between Mind Control and the preceding Uncle Acid album, Blood Lust. Certainly the newer outing — their third and first for Rise Above/Metal Blade — is more psychedelic, more tripped out and less obscure feeling than its predecessor. It didn’t have the same kind of crunch to the guitar tone, or the same kind of horror-film atmosphere or psychosexual foreboding, but the thing was, it wasn’t supposed to. The UK outfit continue to prod cult mentality even as their own cult grows, and as I see it, Mind Control made a lot of sense coming off Blood Lust in terms of the band not wanting to repeat the same ideas over again, but grow from them and expand their sound. Of course, with the strut at the end of opener “Mt. Abraxas,” they’ve set a high standard on their albums for leadoff tracks, but where Mind Control really made its impression was in the hypnosis of cuts like the Beatlesian “Follow the Leader,” the lysergic “Valley of the Dolls” or the maddening “Devil’s Work.” The deeper you went into side B, the more the band had you in their grasp. It was a different kind of accomplishment than the preceding effort — though “Mind Crawler” kept a lot of that vibe alive — and it showed Uncle Acid had more in their arsenal than VHS ambience and garage doom malevolence while keeping the infectiousness that helped Blood Lust make such an impression.

5. Lumbar, The First and Last Days of Unwelcome

Released by Southern Lord. Reviewed Dec. 3.

Of the ones reviewed, Lumbar‘s The First and Last Days of Unwelcome was the most recent inclusion on this list. Having worked with Lumbar multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Aaron Edge (interview here) in the past with his band Roareth releasing what would be their only album on The Maple Forum, this was a project to which I felt an immediate connection given the circumstances of its creation: Being written almost in its entirety and recorded in everything but vocals during a bedridden period following Edge‘s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. The contributions of YOB/Vhöl frontman Mike Scheidt and Tad Doyle of TAD and Brothers of the Sonic Cloth were what got a lot of people’s attention for Lumbar‘s The First and Last Days of Unwelcome, but with the situation are the core of the seven tracks named “Day One” through “Day Seven,” what stood out to me even more than those performances was the utter lack of distance and the level of rawness in the album’s presentation. It puts you there. What you get with Lumbar is the direct translation of a range of emotions from hopeful to hopeless, angry, sad, beaten down and wanting answers, wanting more. There’s no shield from it, and as much in concept as in its execution, there’s no other word for it than “heavy.” The intensity Edge packed into just 24 minutes — and not all of it loud or over the top doomed or anything more than atmospherics — was unmatched by anything else I heard this year.

4. Vista Chino, Peace

Released by Napalm Records. Reviewed July 30.

From just about any angle you want to view it, the situation that turned Kyuss Lives! into Vista Chino was unfortunate. However — and I know I’ve said this before — I really do believe that becoming Vista Chino, that furthering the distance from the Kyuss moniker, brand, legacy, and so on, was for the better of the band creatively. And not because the songs don’t stand up. I doubt it helped their draw much, but for vocalist John Garcia and drummer Brant Bjork (interview here), working as Vista Chino for the creation of Peace, and especially or Bjork working with guitarist Bruno Fevery for the first time in the writing process, it allowed them to step outside of what would’ve been insurmountable expectations for a “fifth Kyuss album” and create something honest, new, and ultimately, more true to the spirit of that now-legendary band. Let’s face it, you hear John Garcia, Brant Bjork and Nick Oliveri are working on a project together, you’re immediately comparing it to Kyuss anyway. At least with Vista Chino, they’ve given themselves the potential for growth beyond a preconceived idea of what Kyuss should sound like. Well what does Vista Chino sound like? It sounds like whatever the hell they want. On Peace, though many of the lyrics dealt with their legal battles over the Kyuss name, the vibe stayed true to a desert rock ethic of laid back heavy, and the round-out jam in “Acidize/The Gambling Moose” left Peace with the feeling that maybe that’s where they’ve ended up after all. Fingers crossed Mike Dean (of C.O.C. and the latest live incarnation of Vista Chino) winds up playing bass on the record, but other than that, wherever they want to go with it, as a fan, I’m happy to follow along.

3. Gozu, The Fury of a Patient Man

Released by Small Stone Records. Reviewed Jan. 24.

The second outing from Gozu on Small Stone, The Fury of a Patient Man tapped into so much of what made the Boston band’s 2010 Locust Season label debut (review here) work so right on and just did it better. Don’t get me wrong, I still dig on “Meat Charger,” but with tracks like “Snake Plissken,” “Bald Bull,” “Signed, Epstein’s Mom” (note: it was “signed, Epstein’s mother” on Welcome Back Kotter) and the thrashing “Charles Bronson Pinchot,” Gozu put forth a collection of some of 2013’s finest heavy rock and did so with not only their own soulful spin on the tropes of the genre, but a mature and varied approach that was no less comfortable giving High on Fire a run for their money than reveling in the grandiose chorus of “Ghost Wipe,” which was also one of the best hooks of the year, guitarist/vocalist Marc Gaffney (interview here) delivering lines in crisp, confident layers, perfectly mixed by Benny Grotto at Mad Oak Studios and cutting through the fray of his own and Doug Sherman‘s guitars, the bass of Paul Dallaire (who split duties with J. Canava; Joe Grotto has since taken over the position) and Barry Spillberg‘s drumming. What the future might hold for Gozu with the recent shift in lineup that replaced Spillberg with drummer Mike Hubbard (ex-Warhorse) and added third guitarist Jeff Fultz (Mellow Bravo) remains to be seen, but with European touring on the horizon for 2014 and appearances slated for Roadburn and Desertfest, the band seem to be looking only to expand their reach, and with the material from The Fury of a Patient Man as a foundation, they’ve got some major considerations acting in their favor. Another album from which I simply could not escape this year, and from which I didn’t want to.

2. Monster Magnet, Last Patrol

Released by Napalm Records. Reviewed Sept. 12.

Billed largely and at least in-part accurately as a return to the group’s psychedelic roots, Last Patrol was Monster Magnet‘s ninth full-length, their first in three years and their second for Napalm. The New Jersey outfit led by guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, founder and, in this case, co-producer Dave Wyndorf (interview here) did indeed delve into the space rock side of their sound more than they have in over a decade, and the effect that doing so had was like a great shaking-off of dust, as though the Bullgod in the John Sumrow cover art just woke up after a long slumber. Perhaps even more than tripping on the Donovan cover “Three Kingfishers” or on the more extended freakouts “Last Patrol” and “End of Time,” what really made Last Patrol such a complete experience was the depth of emotion. Wyndorf wasn’t just standing above an overproduced wall of distortion talking about how he’s the best lay in the galaxy or whatever — fun though that kind of stuff is and has been in the past — but songs like “I Live behind the Clouds,” “The Duke (of Supernature),” “Paradise” and “Stay Tuned” offered a humbler take, a spirit of melancholy that rested well alongside the unmitigated stomp of “Hallelujah” or the driving heavy rock of “Mindless Ones.” Even in its most riotous stretches, Last Patrol was a humbler affair, with a more honest vibe than their last four, maybe five albums. A Monster Magnet release would’ve been noteworthy no matter what it actually sounded like, because that’s the level of impact they’ve had on heavy psych and underground rock over the last two decades-plus. The difference with Last Patrol was that it was a refreshing change from what had started to sound like a formula going stale, and it was  just so damn good to have them be weird again.

1. Clutch, Earth Rocker

Released by Weathermaker Music. Reviewed Feb. 28.

Finally, an album that asked the question, “What it was I’m going to do I haven’t done?” I knew at the year’s halfway point that Clutch‘s Earth Rocker was going to be the one to beat, and that it wasn’t going to be easy for anyone else to top the Maryland kings of groove, who sounded so reinvigorated on songs like “Crucial Velocity,” “Book, Saddle and Go,” “Unto the Breach,” and “Cyborg Bette,” and on funkfied pushers like “D.C. Sound Attack!,” “The Wolfman Kindly Requests…” and “The Face.” They’d hardly been in hibernation since 2009’s Strange Cousins from the West, but four years was the longest they’d ever gone between albums, and it was past time for a new one. To have it arrive as such a boot to the ass just made it that much better, the band shifting away from some of the blues/jam influences that emerged over the course of 2005’s Robot Hive/Exodus and 2007’s From Beale Street to Oblivion — though those certainly showed up as well in the subdued “Gone Cold” and elsewhere — but thanks in no small part to the production of Machine, with whom the band last worked for 2004’s Blast Tyrant, Earth Rocker was huge where it wanted to be and that gave Clutch‘s faster, more active material all the more urgency, where although the songwriting was quality as always, Strange Cousins from the West languished a bit at a more relaxed pace. The difference made all the difference. Whether it was the hellhounds on your trail (what a pity!) in “D.C. Sound Attack!” or the Jazzmasters erupting from the bottom of the sea to take flight, Clutch‘s 10th album was brimming with live, vibrant, heavy on action and heavy on groove, and on a sheer song-by-song level, a classic in the making from a band who’ve already had a few. At very least, it’s a landmark in their discography, and though vocalist Neil Fallon (interview here), guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster always change from record, but it’s the unmistakable stamp they put on all their outings that have earned them such a loyal following, and that stamp is all over Earth Rocker. Front to back, it is a pure Clutch record, and while I’ll happily acknowledge that it’s an obvious pick for album of the year, I don’t see how I possibly could’ve chosen anything else. Like the best of the best, Earth Rocker will deliver for years to come.

The Next 10 and Honorable Mentions

I said at the outset I had 40 picks. The reality was more than that, but here’s the next 10 anyway:

21. Blaak Heat Shujaa, The Edge of an Era
22. The Freeks, Full On
23. Luder, Adelphophagia
24. The Flying Eyes, Lowlands
25. Black Skies, Circadian Meditations
26. At Devil Dirt, Plan B: Sin Revolucion No Hay Evolucion
27. Kadavar, Abra Kadavar
28. Naam, Vow
29. Mühr, Messiah
30. Uzala, Tales of Blood and Fire

Further honorable mention has to go to Pelican, Endless Boogie, Earthless, Phantom Glue, Goatess, Windhand, GongaToner Low, Jesu and Sandrider.

Two More Special Records

I’d be unforgivably remiss if I didn’t note the release in 2013 of two albums that wound up being incredibly special to me personally: I vs. the Glacier by Clamfight and A Time of Hunting by Kings Destroy. Since it came out on this site’s in-house label, I didn’t consider the Clamfight eligible for list consideration and while I didn’t help put it out, the Kings Destroy I also felt very, very close to — probably as close as I’ve felt to a record I didn’t actually perform on — so it didn’t seem fair on a critical level, but I consider both of these to be records that in a large part helped define my year, as well as being exceptional in and of themselves, and they needed very much to be singled out as such. These are people whom I feel whatever-the-godless-heathen-equivalent-of-blessed-is to know.

Before I end this post, I want to say thank you for reading, this, anything else you may have caught this year, whatever it might be. To say it means a lot to me personally is understating it, but it’s true all the same. I’m not quite done wrapping up the year — I’ll have a list of the best album covers, another for EPs and singles and demos, and of course the albums I didn’t hear — so please stay tuned over the next couple weeks, but it seemed only fair to show my appreciation now as well. Thank you.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Obelisk Questionnaire: Neil Fallon of Clutch

Posted in Questionnaire on December 11th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

For over two decades, Maryland four-piece Clutch have served as one of heavy rock and roll’s most reliable stalwarts, with constant touring, inimitable groove and unmatched stage presence. In March 2013, they issued their 10th LP, Earth Rocker (review here), through their own Weathermaker Music imprint and began yet another tour cycle that’s ongoing now with their annual holiday run impending and more winter dates in the US before they head to Soundwave in Australia in February 2014 and headline Desertfest Berlin in April. This summer, frontman Neil Fallon came off the road to have spinal surgery, and it was the first time in memory that Clutch canceled shows. By September, he was back out for makeup dates, supporting Earth Rocker to Clutch‘s expanding and loyal fanbase.

They’re among the most consistently-covered bands around these parts (check out another interview with Fallon here, and that’s not the first), but that’s for good reason. Enjoy:

The Obelisk Questionnaire: Neil Fallon

How did you come to do what you do?

JP, Dan, and I had a band in high school. We parted ways after graduation, but JP and Dan met up with Tim and started another band. After having booked a show, the singer they were working with had a scheduling conflict. The guys gave me a call and asked me to fill in. I’ve been filling in ever since. A scab for 22 years.

Describe your first musical memory.

I remember playing my dad’s 45s at a very young age. My dad was mostly into new folk music like Bob Dylan, Emmy Lou Harris and Joan Baez. He did, however, have one bit of psychedelia that made quite an impression on me. The name of the band was The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. They did a cover of Zappa’s “Help I’m a Rock.” I recall listening to that song on headphones and getting thoroughly freaked out at a very tender age. I listened to it over and over again until that track went white from replay.

Describe your best musical memory to date.

It really is a toss up between the Bad Brains in ’88 and Fugazi in ’90 (if memory serves). I’ve been lucky enough to see countless concerts of all types, but those two bands made their marks when I was just cutting my teeth on live music. I think those instances were revelations in that I realized a live performance could elevate the crowd into a religious experience.

When was a time when a firmly held belief was tested?

A few months back I had some surgery done on my spine. Since it requires general anesthesia the nurse is required to ask about living wills and religious beliefs. Being asked to describe one’s belief system in just a few words while high on morphine is certainly a test. I’m pretty sure I failed miserably.

Where do you feel artistic progression leads?

I think most artists, regardless of their medium, are trying to discover the unknown. Artistic redundancy is a bit like a chasing your own tail. And the creative process can be very frustrating at times. But the frustration is part of the journey. Nothing worthwhile is easy.

Speaking for myself I think artistic progression is always an education. Any artist who feels they have mastered their craft is no longer an artist. Much more can be learned from a failed attempt than repeating a familiar success.

How do you define success?

I get to do what I love for a living. Other than all the mundane things that a day might require, I am only obligated to do two things: perform music or write music. I can’t think of a more fortunate position to be in.

What is something you have seen that you wish you hadn’t?

I’ve seen quite a number of fatal car wrecks that I wish I had not seen.

Describe something you haven’t created yet that you’d like to create.

A novel.

Something non-musical that you’re looking forward to?

My wife is making posole for dinner. I am looking forward to that!

Clutch, “Earth Rocker” Live in NJ, Oct. 17, 2012

Clutch on Thee Facebooks

Clutch’s website

Weathermaker Music

Tags: , , , , , ,

Live Review: Clutch in New Hampshire, 10.26.13

Posted in Reviews on October 28th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

It was the first night back on the road for Clutch vocalist Neil Fallon after having back surgery little over a month ago — also his birthday — and for the band, the kickoff to the latest round of tour dates in support of earlier 2013’s stellar Earth Rocker (review here), so even as far as Clutch gigs go, this one was something of an event. The big mystery was whether Fallon would be able to have the same kind of mobility as a frontman so soon after going under the knife, or if he was ready to be on stage. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that Clutch showed up to the Casino Ballroom in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, ready to roll in their usual pro-rock form, but it was certainly reassuring.

The Casino Ballroom is a sizable space. Wider than it is long if you’re facing the stage, you walk upstairs on either side and the high ceiling, box seats, and open floorplan mark it out immediately as a room with some years. Along the walls are names and dates of people and bands who’ve performed there. It went back to Duke Ellington, and also had Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, George Carlin, and so on. Big names in a big room. As they have for several years now, Clutch entered to Chuck Brown and the Soulsearchers‘ “We Need Some Money” following the direct support from American Sharks — The Sword are also on the tour, but didn’t make this date presumably because it was rescheduled from September on account of the surgery — and within minutes, laid to rest any concerns for their wellbeing. Clutch was just fine.

Adrenaline had to be a factor in that — I’m sorry, but you don’t get a major medical procedure and go on tour five weeks later 100 percent recovered — and Fallon would get visibly stiffer as the show went on, but performance-wise, even later set inclusions “D.C. Sound Attack” and “The Mob Goes Wild” were delivered both with vigor and laser-point accuracy. Guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster had some rust to shake off initially as well, but with the more vigorous material from the latest album to do so, they were hardly through the Earth Rocker title-track and into “50,000 Unstoppable Watts” from 2009’s Strange Cousins from the West before they seemed locked in, and the setlist continued, as when I last saw them in May, to draw largely the new record with about a 50/50 split of that and everything else.

No doubt the ability to change it up is an advantage of having 10 albums under their collective belt, and cuts like “Profits of Doom” from 2004’s Blast Tyrant, “Escape from the Prison Planet” from their landmark 1995 self-titled and “The Elephant Riders” from the 1998 follow-up of the same name were welcome alongside Earth Rocker full-thrusters like “Crucial Velocity,” “Cyborg Bettie” and “Book, Saddle and Go.” The Earth Rocker tracks — shorter, crisper, leaner and less jammy-feeling on the whole than those of Strange Cousins from the West or the preceding LP, 2007’s From Beale Street to Oblivion — go over exceedingly well in the live setting. That’s been the experience for a few years now, as album closer “The Wolfman Kindly Requests…” has been a regular for a while, but it’s especially true of the faster songs. As engaging as the dynamic display of a Clutch jam is — and it is — they made the turn to a more stripped down feel at just the right time, and their fanbase from what I’ve seen at the shows has responded with due excitement.

That was definitely the case at the Casino Ballroom, anyhow. The bars on either side had long lines, and if you were the type to, say, wear sandals in late October, then almost certainly you’d have beer spilled on your feet by the time the show was done (fortunately I avoided the issue with some beat-ass old sneakers I keep on hand for such occasions and/or snow), and any vision you might have of watching awkward beardo dudes boogie down, you can be sure that vision would be fulfilled by “Elephant Riders” or “Book, Saddle and Go.” For me, any night I get to see Clutch play “The Regulator” from Blast Tyrant, I consider myself as having won (at life), and this one was no exception. Watching the let’s-ride-this-cowbell-part-for-a-while take on “D.C. Sound Attack” move into the quieter blues of “Gone Cold” was an interesting shift as well, and only showed the four-piece’s ability to manipulate the vibe at will. Now it’s a party — now it’s that lonely time after the party when you’re picking up bottles from the lawn. Fortunately they have some of heavy rock’s best and funkiest grooves to tie it all together.

And to that end, indulge me as I take a second to admire the workman’s heavy lifting that Dan Maines does playing bass in this band. Gaster is an inventive, deeply creative drummer, and Sult loves his wah, his starts and stops, and as Fallon goes off in madman-preacher mode in “The Face,” it’s Maines‘ smooothness anchoring the song and keeping the motion forward. He’s never showy on stage, but his contribution is essential to Clutch being the force they are, and that was all the more apparent as “The Mob Goes Wild” gave way to “The Wolfman Kindly Requests…” and “Electric Worry” to close out the night, Bryan “Uzi” Hinkley of Tree coming out for a guest spot on guitar. First night of the tour, Fallon looking a little rough by the end — though again, his voice sounded great — Clutch showed that whatever hiccups might’ve come their way, they were nothing more than that, and that their momentum coming off Earth Rocker will continue as their train keeps a’ rolling for who knows how long and to who knows what destination.

A quick encore was had with “A Shogun Named Marcus” from 1993’s Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes and Undeniable Truths full-length debut (which makes a fitting-if-gritty companion for Earth Rocker), and sent everyone back out into the cold Friday night. Hampton Beach is indeed a shore town, and though it was dark, I could smell the salt of the ocean on the cold wind blowing from across the street. At least I think that’s what it was.

More pics after the jump. Thanks for reading.

Read more »

Tags: , , , , ,

The Top 10 of the First Half of 2013

Posted in Features on June 18th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

This is always fun, and because the year’s only (just about) half over, you always know there’s more to come. The last six months have brought a host of really stellar releases, and the whole time, it’s felt like just when you’ve dug your heels into something and really feel content to rest with it for a while, there’s something else to grab your ears. So it’s been for the last six months, bouncing from one record to the next.

Even now, I’ve got a list of albums, singles, EPs, tapes, demos, whatever, waiting for attention — some of which I’m viciously behind on — but it’s time to stop and take a look back at some of what the best of the first half of 2013 has been. Please note, I’m only counting full-lengths here. While I’ve heard a few killer EPs this year — looking at you, Mars Red Sky — it doesn’t seem fair to rate everything all together like that. Maybe a separate list.

If you’ve got a list of your own or some quibbling on the numbers, please leave a comment and be heard. From where I sit, that’s always the best part of this kind of thing.

Here we go:

10. Endless Boogie, Long Island

Released by No Quarter Records. Reviewed Feb. 19.

The third Endless Boogie album on No Quarter was basically the soundtrack to the end of my winter, with smooth grooving cuts like “The Artemus Ward” and the classic rock shake of “On Cryology” providing a soundtrack as cool as the air in my lungs. It was my first experience with the longform-jamming improv-heavy foursome, and a CD I’m still stoked to put on and get lost in, having found that it works just as well in summer’s humidity as winter’s freeze, the off-the-cuff narrations of Paul Major (interview here) carrying a vibe unmistakably belonging to the rock history of the band’s native New York City. Was a sleeper, but not one to miss for its organic and exploratory feel.

9. Magic Circle, Magic Circle

Released by Armageddon Shop. Reviewed Feb. 18.

Proffering righteous traditional doom and misery-drenched atmospherics, the debut full-length from Massachusetts-based Magic Circle hit hard and showed there’s life yet to the old ways. It never quite veered into the cultish posturing that comprises so much of the trad doom aesthetic these days, and from the grandiose riffing of guitarists Dan Ducas and Chris Corry and the blown-out vocals of frontman Brendan Radigan, it found the band carving a memorable identity for themselves with clear sonic ideas of what they wanted to accomplish. Out of all the bands on this list, I’m most interested to hear what Magic Circle do next to build on their debut.

8. Kadavar, Abra Kadavar

Released by Nuclear Blast. Reviewed April 9.

Berlin trio Kadavar had a tough task ahead of them in releasing a sophomore answer to their self-titled, which I thought was the best first album of 2012, but when Abra Kadavar surfaced as their debut on Nuclear Blast, it was quickly apparent that the retro heavy rockers had put together a worthy follow-up. Cuts like “Come Back Life” and “Doomsday Machine” underscored the straightforward triumphs of the prior outing, while late-album arrivals “Liquid Dream,” “Rhythm for Endless Minds” and “Abra Kadabra” gave a sense that Kadavar were beginning a journey into psychedelia the results of which could be just as rewarding as even the most potent of their choruses. Their potential remains one of their biggest appeals.

7. Devil to Pay, Fate is Your Muse

Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed March 19.

It wasn’t without its rough edges, but at the core of Indianapolis heavy rockers Devil to Pay‘s fourth record was an unflinching songwriting quality that quickly established it among my go-to regulars, whether it was the quirky doom hook of “Ten Lizardmen and One Pocketknife,” the darkly progressive riffing of “Black Black Heart” or the suitably propulsive rush of “This Train Won’t Stop.” The double-guitar four-piece didn’t have much time for frills in terms of arrangement or structure, but by building on the developments over the course of their three prior releases, Devil to Pay delivered a slab of deceptively intricate standouts that made hard turns sound easy and demanded the attention it deserved.

6. Beast in the Field, The Sacred Above, the Sacred Below

Released by Saw Her Ghost Records. Streamed in full June 5.

Unfuckwithable tone set to destructive purpose. Immediately upon hearing the unsung Michigan drum/guitar duo’s fourth album, the impact of The Sacred Above, the Sacred Below — overwhelming though it is at times throughout the album; hello, “Oncoming Avalanche” — refused to be denied. Beast in the Field haven’t gotten anything remotely close to the attention they should for this devastating collection, but it’s one I absolutely can’t put down, cohesive in theme and full of skull-caving riffs as dynamic as they are brutally delivered by the instrumental twosome. If it’s one you missed on CD when Saw Her Ghost put it out in March (as I did), keep your eyes open for a vinyl release coming on Emetic in the next couple months. Really. Do it.

5. Black Pyramid, Adversarial

Released by Hydro-Phonic Records. Reviewed April 12.

Massachusetts trio Black Pyramid quickly dispatched any doubts of their ability to continue on after the departure of their previous guitarist/vocalist, bassist Dave Gein and drummer Clay Neely joined forces with Darryl Shepard (Hackman, Blackwolfgoat, Roadsaw, etc.) to reinvigorate their battle-ready doom, and whether it was the extended jamming on “Swing the Scimitar” or the surprisingly smooth riffing on “Aphelion,” the results did not disappoint. Regardless of personnel, I’ve yet to hear a Black Pyramid album I didn’t want to hear again, and though I’ll freely admit they’re a sentimental favorite for me at this point, Adversarial is a suitable dawn for their next era. Long may they reign.

4. Gozu, The Fury of a Patient Man

Released by Small Stone. Reviewed Jan. 24.

True, I will argue tooth and nail that Boston four-piece Gozu should get rid of their goofball, sitcom-referential song titles, but that’s only because I believe the band’s lack of pretense speaks for itself through the music and their tracks are too good to give listeners a chance not to take them seriously. When it comes to The Fury of a Patient Man — their second full-length behind the impressive 2010 debut, Locust Season (review here) — I knew the first time I heard it toward the end of last year that it was going to be one of 2013’s best, and while I’ve heard quibbles in favor of the debut, nothing has dissuaded me from thinking the sophomore installment outclasses it on almost every level. Expect a return appearance when the year-end list hits in December.

3. Queens of the Stone Age, …Like Clockwork

Released by Matador Records. Reviewed June 4.

There’s a big part of me that feels like a sucker for digging …Like Clockwork, the first Queens of the Stone Age full-length since 2007’s relatively lackluster Era Vulgaris, but when it comes right down to it, I hit the point in listening to the album that I came around to its sheen, its up-and-down moodiness and its unabashed self-importance. I hit the point where I was able to separate …Like Clockwork from its “viral marketing” and just enjoy Josh Homme‘s all-growed-up songwriting for what it is. Would I have loved a second self-titled album? Probably, but it wasn’t realistic to think that’s what …Like Clockwork would be, and as much as I’ve tried out other spots for it, I’d be lying if I put this record anywhere else on this list but here. So there you go. I understand the arguments against it, but reason doesn’t always apply when it comes to what gets repeat spins.

2. Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Mind Control

Released by Rise Above/Metal Blade. Reviewed April 8.

I was late to the party on the second Uncle Acid offering, 2011’s Blood Lust, as I often am on records where the hype gets to din levels, but by the time the subsequent Mind Control was announced, I knew it was going to be one to watch out for. Aligned to Rise Above/Metal Blade, the UK outfit began to unravel till-then mystery of itself, playing live and developing the brazen psychedelic pop influences hinted at in the horrors of Blood Lust so that the swing of “Mt. Abraxas” and the acid-coated psych of “Valley of the Dolls” could exist within the same cohesive sphere. Between the death-boogie of “Mind Crawler” and mid-period Beatlesian exploration of “Follow the Leader,” Mind Control continues to be an album I hear as much on the mental jukebox rotation as one I actually put on to listen to again. Either way, there’s no getting away from it — the eerie melodies of guitarist/vocalists Kevin “Uncle Acid” Starrs and Yotam Rubinger are hauntingly ever-present.

1. Clutch, Earth Rocker

Released by Weathermaker Music. Reviewed Feb. 28.

Obvious? Probably, but that doesn’t make it any less genuine. To set the scene, here’s me on the Masspike a couple weeks ago in the Volvo of Doom™ with the little dog Dio, 90 miles an hour shouting along to “Crucial Velocity” at the top of my never-on-key lungs. I couldn’t and wouldn’t endeavor to tell you how many times I’ve listened to Earth Rocker since I first got a taste, but from the title-track on through the surging groove at the end of “The Wolfman Kindly Requests…,” front to back, the 10th Clutch album still does not fail to roil the blood with not a dud in the bunch. The Maryland road dogs of course shine best on a stage, and Earth Rocker‘s polished, layered production is a studio affair in the truest sense, but all that does is make me hopeful they’ll complement it with a live record soon. Clutch could easily have phoned in a follow-up to 2009’s Strange Cousins from the West and their fanbase probably would’ve still salivated over it, myself included, but by boldly pushing themselves to write faster, more concise material, they’ve reenergized one of heavy rock’s best sounds. Whether you’re a longtime fan or a brand new listener, Earth Rocker is utterly essential.

Two more records I have to mention: Kings Destroy‘s A Time of Hunting and Clamfight‘s I vs. the Glacier. I wasn’t involved in releasing the Kings Destroy, but felt close to it nonetheless, and since the Clamfight came out on The Maple Forum, it wouldn’t be appropriate to include it in the list proper, but hands down, these are my two favorite records of the year so far and made by some of the best people I’ve had the pleasure to know over the course of my years nerding out to heavy music.

Some other honorable mentions go to Toner Low, Cathedral, Church of Misery, Serpent Throne, Naam, The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic and All Them Witches. Like I said, it’s been a hell of a year so far.

You may note some glaring absences in the list above — Black Sabbath, ASG, Orchid, Ghost, Kvelertak and Voivod come to mind immediately. Some of that is a result of my disdain for digital promos, and some of that is just a matter of what I listened to most. Please understand that although release profile is not something discounted, at the heart of what’s included here is one individual’s personal preferences and listening habits.

Thanks for reading. Here’s to your own lists and to the next six months to come!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Clutch Headed to Europe this Week; North American Fall Tour Announced

Posted in Whathaveyou on June 4th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

Book, saddle and go. As ever, Maryland groove stalwarts Clutch are hitting the road. The foursome continue to kick it in support of their tenth album, Earth Rocker (review here), released earlier this year on their own Weathermaker Music. On Friday, they start a European run that’ll take them into mid-July. Word has also come out of a North American stint that’ll bring them across the land and back. Those dates and more info can be found below, hot off the PR wire:

CLUTCH Gear Up For European Tour — New North American Tour Dates Announced!

Maryland rockers clutch are off to Europe this week for a five week tour that includes festival dates and club shows. CLUTCH have announced the next North American legs of the “Earth Rocker” World Tour. The tour starts in Edmonton Alberta for the Alberta’s Own Festival. The US run of dates kicks off September 14th in Baltimore, MD with an appearance at “The Shindig Festival”. Support on the headline tour in September will come from The Sword and Crobot. Support on the October and November shows will be provided by The Sword and American Sharks. Tickets for fan club members go on sale Wednesday June 5th and for the general public on Friday June 7th and Saturday June 8th. Go to for fan club early ticketing.

In addition to the new dates, CLUTCH has also confirmed that they will be returning to the newly opened Starland Ballroom (which was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy), this December as part of their annual holiday tour. Dates for the rest of the holiday shows will be announced later.

Any fan’s dream is to know what it’s like to be on the road with a Rock and Roll band, but you may be surprised to see what it’s really like – long periods of boredom, broken up by brief periods of intense activity and most of all hard work. The working man’s Rock and Roll Band, CLUTCH will be posting a tour blog throughout their European tour on how it really is. The first post is available today and can be read on the band’s Facebook Page and

European Summer Tour Dates
6/7: Zeppenlinfeld, Germany @ Rock im Park*
6/8: Nurburgring, Germany @ Rock Am Ring*
6/10: Potsdam, Germany @ Waschhaus
6/11: Heidelberg, Germany @ Karlstorbahnhof
6/13: Madrid, Spain @ Gloos Club
6/14: Barcelona, Spain @ Music Hall Barcelona
6/15: Bilbao, Spain @ Sala Santana*
6/17: Bordeaux, France @ Le Krakatoa
6/18: Lyon, France @ Transbo Club (at Le Transbordeur)
6/19: Milan, Italy @ Flame Festival*
6/20: Zurich, Switzerland @ Earshakerdays @ Volkhaus*
6/21: Schmitten, Switzerland @ Scmittnet Openair Festival*
6/22: Cognac, France @ Les Anciens Abattoirs
6/23: Clisson, France @ Hellfest*
6/26: Thessaloniki, Greece @ Principal Club Theater
6/27: Athens, Greece @ VOX IERA Odos
6/29: Bremen, Germany @ Tower
6/30: Dessel, Belgium @ Graspop Metal Meeting*
7/1: Deventer, Netherlands @ Burgerweeshuis
7/2: Eindhoven, Netherlands @ Effenaar
7/4: Hisingen, Sweden @ Metaltown*
7/6: Munster, Germany @ Vainstream Rockfest*
7/7: Luxembourg @ Kulturfabrik
7/8: Norwich, UK @ Waterfront
7/9: Nottingham, UK @ Rock City
7/10: Manchester, UK @ The Ritz
7/11: London, UK @ The Forum

North American Dates
8/31: Lacombe, AB @ Alberta Downs – (Alberta’s Own)*
9/14: Baltimore, MD @ Carroll Park – “The Shindig” *
9/15: Asheville, NC @ The Orange Peel
9/16: Birmingham, AL @ Iron City
9/17: Jacksonville, FL @ Freebird Live
9/19: Raleigh, NC @ Lincoln Theatre
9/20: Raleigh, NC @ Lincoln Theatre
9/21: Vienna, WV @ Fishbone Gill & Grill
9/22: South Bend, IN @ Club Landing
9/24: So. Burlington, VT @ Higher Ground
9/25: Buffalo, NY @ The Town Ballroom
9/26: Port Chester, NY @ The Capitol Theatre
9/27: Huntington, NY @ The Paramount
9/28: Hampton Beach, NH @ Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom
10/27: Charleston, SC @ The Music Farm
10/28: Athens, GA @ Georgia Theatre
10/29: Chattanooga, TN @ Track 29
10/31: Louisville, KY @ Expo Five
11/01: Memphis, TN @ Minglewood Hall
11/02: Oklahoma City, OK @ Diamond Ballroom
11/04: Corpus Christi, TX @ House of Rock
11/05: Austin, TX @ Emo’s
11/07: Albuquerque, NM @ Sunshine Theater
11/08: Tucson, AZ @ Rialto Theatre
11/09: West Hollywood, CA @ House of Blues
11/10: San Diego, CA @ House of Blues
11/11: Sacramento, CA @ Ace of Spades
11/13: Grand Junction, CO @ Mesa Theater & Club
11/14: Denver, CO @ Ogden Theatre
11/15: Wichita, KS @ The Cotillion
11/16: Columbia, MO @ The Blue Note
11/17: Bloomington, IL @ The Castle Theatre
11/19: Joliet, IL @ Mojoes
11/20: Madison, WI @ Orpheum Theatre
11/21: Ft. Wayne, IN @ Piere’s
11/22: Columbus, OH @ The LC Pavilion
11/23: Detroit, MI @ The Fillmore Detroit
12/27: Sayreville, NJ @ Starland Ballroom

*Denotes Festival Date*

Clutch, Earth Rocker (2013)

Tags: , , , ,

Live Review: Clutch in Manhattan, 05.02.13

Posted in Reviews on May 3rd, 2013 by JJ Koczan

With nearly 40 shows under their collective belt in support of their 10th album, Earth Rocker, Maryland roaddogs Clutch are still really just beginning the touring cycle. Fresh off a couple weeks’ break following a long run with Orange Goblin, they returned to Manhattan last night with The Sword and regular tour compatriots Lionize opening, playing a set that included all but two of the tracks from the new album as well as a few classics from their vast catalog.

There aren’t a lot of bands who can get away with this. The rock and roll cliche is that when you hear, “Here’s one from the new album,” it’s time to go get another drink. Clutch, and their fanbase, are an exception to the rule. Earth Rocker (review here) has been out for about a month and a half, and it was the new songs that people wanted to see, to get to know in a live setting, to find out where the band — guitarist Tim Sult, vocalist Neil Fallon, bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster — would decide to throw in a jam here and there, and to learn how the new stuff meshed with the old.

Clutch last came through in December as part of their annual holiday tour (review here), and they had played a few of the Earth Rocker cuts then, but now with more gigs behind them, the songs were unquestionably more refined. And there were more of them. Save for “Unto the Breach” and “Mr. Freedom,” the entirety of Earth Rocker was spread throughout the set — eight tracks — mixed with a few cuts from its unofficial companion piece, 2004’s Blast Tyrant (the two albums shared a producer in NJ-based Machine), including “Cypress Grove,” “The Mob Goes Wild,” “Profits of Doom” and “The Regulator,” as well as “Mice and Gods” from 2005’s Robot Hive/Exodus, “The Yeti” from 1998’s Elephant Riders, and the finale, “Electric Worry,” from 2007’s From Beale Street to Oblivion.

The real kicker here is that no matter what Clutch play at a given show, they both picked the setlist right and left something out. 10 albums deep, there’s no way they can get to everything in a single night, so they’re probably right not to try, and with the expectation that a New York crowd probably doesn’t have a lot of first-timers in it — they’ve done and continue to do really well in the area; the sheer size of Terminal 5 can stand as testament — the way for Clutch to give their audience something it hasn’t seen before is to play the new songs. Frankly, that’s what I was there to see.

And they did not disappoint. Opening with “Earth Rocker” into “Book, Saddle and Go” and “Cyborg Bette,” the rush was immediate and their energy palpable. Fallon as ever was back and forth on stage, gesticulating wildly to emphasize the lyrics while Sult, Maines and Gaster held down the still-funkified rhythm behind. “Earth Rocker” seemed a little slower than on the album, but they got up to speed with “Book, Saddle and Go,” and when “Cyborg Bette” slammed into its last verse and chorus — “Cyborg Bette/You done me/Wrong for the last time…” and so on — it was clear by the sing-along just how quickly the crowd had taken to the new material.

Any night I get to see Clutch, I feel like I’ve won out, and any night I get to see them play “The Regulator,” all the more so. Maybe it was because the bulk of the newer songs are faster and more straightforward, but the slowdown mid-set seemed even more dynamic, Fallon picking up a guitar and easing into a more melodic delivery. By then, they’d run through “The Mob Goes Wild” — suitably riotous — and “Profits of Doom” en route to working a jam onto the end of “D.C. Sound Attack” that only added to one of Earth Rocker‘s best grooves, cowbell included. Clutch are known to alternate which member of the band picks the setlist each night, and I don’t know who got this one, but it flowed well and “The Regulator” made a good marker after “Mice and Gods” and “Cypress Grove,” which was shouted out to all the ladies in the house as much good vibing ensued.

In December, “D.C. Sound Attack” had seemed rough in some of its transitions, but that was resolved and the song executed as smoothly as everything else. It feels like a given to say Clutch are one of the tightest live acts I’ve ever seen — like, well duh, of course they are — but it’s worth highlighting just how impressive they really can be on stage, and that even in a space like Terminal 5, with two balcony levels above the floor and a stretch back to rival Roseland Ballroom, not at all intimate, they managed to bring the crowd along with them for the party they were throwing. I’m sure it helped that those in attendance were so willing to go, but still. To seem human in a place like that is a feat and they pulled it off like it was nothing. One more reason to keep coming back.

“Oh, Isabella” followed “The Regulator” and led to “The Wolfman Kindly Requests…” which closes the new album. Sult‘s guitar did well in conveying the grandiose sensibility of the final moments, but I wondered if Clutch wouldn’t go so far as to add a second for that part, whether it’s Fallon handling it or someone else, just to give it that extra push when it kicks in at the end. I guess they probably have another 300 shows or so to figure out if that’s a choice they want to make, but it’s a great live song anyway, and fit surprisingly snug with the subdued “Gone Cold” following, that in turn giving way to “The Face,” a highlight of Earth Rocker and probably the song I was most hoping — aside from “The Regulator,” which is a constant on my wish list — they’d play.

Similar in its scope to the ending of “The Wolfman Kindly Requests…,” “The Face” makes an impression on the album through its sheer size and its story of rock and roll redemption. Live, it’s obviously rawer, but its epic riff sounds no less epic, and Fallon nailed the rhythm of the verses, making it all the more thrilling to watch. Hopefully it’s one that stays in the set for years to come. For the encore, Clutch threw in “The Yeti” and added a jam to the end that transitioned into “Burning Beard” — it wasn’t easy, but they got there — and then capped with “Electric Worry,” as one has come to increasingly expect over the last couple years.

For me, it was a laid-back kind of night. I’d worked late the few days prior and been pretty beat, so hitting up a Clutch show was more like seeing old friends — also helped that there were plenty of those in the crowd — than something to stress over. I got to relax, lean back and belt out a few killer tunes along with the band, and I don’t think there’s anything more I could’ve reasonably asked for a Thursday night. They were done just before midnight, I got back to my humble river valley a couple minutes after one, and woke up this morning with “The Face” still stuck in my head. It was the best Clutch show since the last one and it’ll be the best until the next one. That’s how they do.

More pics after the jump.

Read more »

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Clutch Interview with Neil Fallon: What’s This about Limits?

Posted in Features on March 21st, 2013 by JJ Koczan

I was fortunate enough last fall to be asked to take some pictures of Clutch while they were recording their 10th studio album, Earth Rocker, at producer Machine‘s North Jersey studio, the Machine Shop. When I got there, vocalist Neil Fallon was putting down the chorus for what would become the album’s fourth track, “D.C. Sound Attack,” and the hook was so immediately strong that right away when I got back to my car I wrote down the words so I wouldn’t forget them when I had the song stuck in my head for however many months it would be until the album finally came out. It looked like this:

That was the first clue I had that Earth Rocker was going to be both something special and a very different album than Clutch‘s last, 2009’s Strange Cousins from the West. Where Strange Cousins pushed further into the mid-paced blues and jam explorations of recent years, even that tiny sample was enough to show that Earth Rocker was after a bigger sound, and in its finished product — released this week on the band’s own Weathermaker Music imprint — it got there. The massive room of a song like “The Face,” or the rush of its title-track, “Cyborg Bette,” “Crucial Velocity” or “Book, Saddle and Go”; it all adds up to a revitalized feel, and one well earned by the hard-touring Maryland stalwarts.

Clutch tour. That’s their thing, and it’s why it took so long to get this record together. In the four years since Strange Cousins hit, a collection of acoustic reinterpretations coupled with a Weathermaker reissue of 2004’s Blast Tyrant — their first collaboration Machine — and a Record Store Day 2012 picture disc single for the track “Pigtown Blues” filled the space between LPs, but Clutch were only ever off the road long enough to regroup for the start of the next run. Yeah, it was time to get an album out, but hey when Motörhead calls, you answer.

The point is, if absence made their fanbase’s collective heart grow stronger, Clutch weren’t actually absent. They were going door-to-door. Still, in no small part because of its energetic material, Earth Rocker (review here) arrives as an extra satisfying listen, like the album is its own bonus. “D.C. Sound Attack” is a highlight, as is “The Wolfman Kindly Requests…,” as is the side-A-closing slowdown “Gone Cold,” as is each track for one reason or another. How have Clutch chosen to celebrate the new release? The only way they seem to know how. By touring.

Teamed with London-based destroyers Orange Goblin for the first US leg going on now, ClutchFallon, guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster — have embarked on what’s sure to be years of slogging in support of Earth Rocker. I spoke to Fallon prior to the start of the shows, after the band had gotten home from a stint through Europe in January/February, which as he noted in our conversation, was their best batch of gigs there to date.

After the jump, please find the complete Q&A with Neil Fallon of Clutch about the album, touring and much more, as well as selected pictures taken at that first in-studio (the first two below) and Clutch‘s 2012 CMJ party and performance, where they previewed Earth Rocker material for a short but memorable set.

Read more »

Tags: , , , ,

Clutch, Earth Rocker: Like Greyhounds in the Slips

Posted in Reviews on February 28th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

By the time Marylander stalwarts of groove Clutch release Earth Rocker through their own Weathermaker Music imprint on March 19, it will have been nearly four years since they last issued a studio album. That record, 2009’s Strange Cousins from the West, pushed the four-piece’s blues/funk fetish to its furthest reaches to date, with cuts like “Abraham Lincoln” and “Let a Poor Man Be” enacting a successful blend of the blues and Clutch’s long-running thread of heavy rock consistency while “50,000 Unstoppable Watts” and “Minotaur” offered the lyrical quirk that fans have come to expect over the course of their career. Four years is the longest stretch ever between Clutch offerings, but during that time the band was hardly idle. In addition 2010’s “King of Arizona” digital single, Live at the 9:30 double-DVD set (review here) and overseeing Weathermaker reissues in 2011 of the three albums initially released on DRT Records – 2004’s Blast Tyrant, 2005’s Robot Hive/Exodus and 2007’s From Beale Street to Oblivion (group review here) – the first of that set also including the Basket of Eggs EP of tracks from throughout their catalog reworked acoustically – as well as releasing a new single, Pigtown Blues, for Record Store Day in 2012, Clutch toured the holy hell out of Strange Cousins from the West (live reviews here, here, here and here), only really stopping to start up again in the US or Europe. Doubtless they could have kept going – theirs is a fanbase loyal and prone to showing up – but speaking as a fan of the band (which, make no mistake, is the point of view from whence this review comes) it was past time for a new album, and if you want a sense of how Earth Rocker relates to Clutch’s discography as their 10th outing, there’s really no need to look past the title. Where Strange Cousins from the West was long, somewhat meandering, vague in its origin, From Beale Street to Oblivion clear in its place but also on the longer side of a title, and Robot Hive/Exodus had that pesky slash offering grammatical complexity, Earth Rocker – the mere phrase – lands with a stripped-down thud as one imagines a large book might on a dusty table. The band has noted their drive to write faster songs and between that and their returning to producer Machine to record, Earth Rocker has no little amount in common with Blast Tyrant nearly a decade later. Even the syllabic rhythm of the two titles is the same, and you know Clutch get down with some syllabic rhythm.

If that’s the starting point, so be it, but Clutch – vocalist/sometimes-guitarist Neil Fallon, guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster – are in no way repeating themselves with Earth Rocker, and whatever similarities of approach the latest work might share with Blast Tyrant, those similarities are filtered through the subsequent years of blues influence and road dogging. These songs are not a step backward. They are, however, some of the most straightforwardly heavy rocking tracks Clutch have written since Blast Tyrant, or, I’d argue, the preceding album, 2001’s Pure Rock Fury, albeit with a thicker, larger production sound. An impeccably structured 44-and-a-half-minute collection of 11 tracks, Earth Rocker is also the shortest of the band’s full-lengths (by about three minutes, but still), and telegraphs its side A/B split no matter the format, with the subdued blues moodiness of “Gone Cold” just as potent a centerpiece for the linear listen (CD/digital) as it is a cap for the first side of an LP, following the quick rush of an initial salvo in “Earth Rocker,” “Crucial Velocity,” “Mr. Freedom,” “D.C. Sound Attack” and “Unto the Breach,” all of which feed into a considerable sense of momentum. The opening duo of “Earth Rocker” and “Crucial Velocity” are especially indicative of the record’s course, coming on short, crisp and tight in casting aside (for the moment and relatively speaking) funk groove in favor of forward thrust. In its verses, “Earth Rocker” is a bold declaration of intent, with an acknowledgement of audience in the chorus that’s not to be overlooked. Gaster and Sult introduce the song with a tense quiet beginning, but when the track begins to move, it doesn’t stop again, Fallon injecting mwa-ha-ha-ha bogeyman laughter into the chorus as though the very notion of being an “earth rocker” – one who might proclaim, “I don’t need your stinking laminates/I don’t need your VIP/I don’t need your validation/’Cause I wear mine on the sleeve” – is something other or intimidating. He’s probably right, and as the song hits its peak, the frontman offers the plainspoken perspective, “Yes I’ve lost many battles/And even more days/But if I had to do it over/I’d do it just the same,” leading to a last chorus that in a few minutes has gone from mission statement to victorious decree. Not a bad jump to make in just three and a half minutes, and though the pace continues on “Crucial Velocity,” the lyrics move to a semi-sci-fi thematic with Fallon being pursued perhaps by his own future and escaping in an Oldsmobile.

“Rocket 88” was a 1951 single by Ike Turner and his band Kings of Rhythm that legend has it featured the first distorted electric guitar, so with that reference, the chorus of “My Rocket 88/Fastest in the land/Crucial, crucial velocity!” taps into more than one kind of escapism, Fallon going self-referential in the third verse with the lines, “Everybody, everybody keeps telling me/Neil you got to quit your lowdown ways.” The band behind is suitably motoring, Sult adding wah flourish while Gaster claims debt from his snare (beating it like it owes him money) and Maines builds himself a summer cottage in the pocket of a signature start-stop verse groove. On some level, this is Clutch sounding like Clutch, but it’s also bigger and tonally heavier than they’ve been since they last collaborated with Machine. The faster songs are refreshing without sacrificing their rhythmic presence, and they set up Earth Rocker to unfold its diversity with “Mr. Freedom” and the subsequent tracks. It’s a tricky turn between “Mr. Freedom,” – as politically-minded lyrically as the title would indicate – “D.C. Sound Attack,” “Unto the Breach” and “Gone Cold,” but they pull it off and keep a flow going without so much as batting an eye, keeping hints of the opening rush in “Mr. Freedom” while dialing back the tempo slightly, upping the funk for “D.C. Sound Attack” and delving, as previously noted, into quiet blues for “Gone Cold.” Clutch aren’t strangers to political material – digging back through lyrics, even “One Eye Dollar” as it appears on 1999’s Jam Room is easy to read that way – and “Mr. Freedom” stands on the shoulders of cuts like “Mr. Shiny Cadillackness” from From Beale Street to Oblivion and “Freakonomics” from Strange Cousins from the West in a line of recent excursions into progressive social commentary. Like the first two tracks and Earth Rocker as a whole, however, it’s also more blatant in calling out those who play on fear for political ends or find cause for righteousness in the superficial trappings of patriotism, not even through the first verse before Fallon gives it straight: “Every time you open up your mouth a load of horse shit comes flying right back out.” The stance notwithstanding (I’m not one to debate even if I felt a need), Sult’s wah should be enough to win any conservative holdouts. Maines, who at times can seem to be lost in the mix beneath layers of guitar, fills out the chorus well as part of what I consider heavy rock’s best rhythm section alongside Gaster, and though “Mr. Freedom” is the shortest piece on Earth Rocker at 2:45, it lacks nothing in impression left. I haven’t seen the preachy rear someone’s vehicle since I first heard it and not thought of the second verse line, “And every bumper sticker on the back your car makes you feel a little more real.”

When it hits, “D.C. Sound Attack” is a highlight among highlights. Its groove is a little funkier, Gaster riding the riff while Fallon throws in some blues harp for the quick intro into the first verse, and the layering in the chorus makes it a standout as the vocals respond to their own calls and the lyrics, “Hell hounds on your trail/What a pity/But that’s the price you pay/Shakin’ hands in Necro City” lead to a cowbell-infused bridge no less memorable, calling for the titular D.C. sound attack. Of all the material on Earth Rocker, “D.C. Sound Attack” is a takeaway – one of those songs that will likely feature in the live set for years to come, and one well suited to that environment in spite of what the layering adds to the guitar and vocals in the studio version, the lyrics still consistent in their roughly sociopolitical lean with the much more blatant “Mr. Freedom.” Gaster’s drums prove as integral to the song’s ultimate success as Sult’s riffing, and the overall result proves immediately infectious where a track like “Crucial Velocity,” because it moves faster, needs a few listens to really sink in on the listener. That’s the case as well with “Unto the Breach,” which follows “D.C. Sound Attack” and revives the initial speediness of “Crucial Velocity” and the title cut. As it’s positioned between “D.C. Sound Attack” and “Gone Cold” – both distinguished right away in the tracklist – it’s easy to pass over “Unto the Breach” as an afterthought, but it fits well on side A, reviving the uptempo thrust and exuding a lyrical paranoia full of hobgoblins, Morris men, and the Swiss guard, dropping references to the Gutenburg press and of course the title call, snatched from Shakespeare’s Henry V. All these actors end their revels in just 3:31, so “Unto the Breach” is nothing if it’s not densely packed, and whatever landmark “D.C. Sound Attack” may have provided before it or “Gone Cold” might provide after, “Unto the Breach”’s full-run chorus is effective and engaging. Another track, less intricately arranged in its layering, that seems to be built for the stage, Sult taking a wah solo to break up the thud from Gaster’s drums and Maines poking through with low end just before the last verse/chorus rush. It’s a deceptive song in the spirit of “Child of the City” from From Beale Street to Oblivion, but its qualities emerge over a longer term of listens and its merits ultimately prove greater than one might initially believe.

Read more »

Tags: , , , ,