“Are you cool?
Well I’m cool.
Is everybody cool?
WELL LET’S GET HOT.”
Yo, this be Reuben. Clutch are the coolest band in the world right now, period. Mastodon shoved some lame-ass lyrics into Emperor of Sand and their cool factor has decreased a little so they’ve been overtaken by Neil Fallon’s group of merry rockers. To celebrate this prestigious accolade, Clutch have released a new album: Book of Bad Decisions, a 15-track behemoth of fuzzy rock fury. I, for one, am grateful. It may not be the band’s greatest album, but it’ll probably end up as one of the best of this year.
I was a little wary of it at first, though. When they released that first single Gimme the Keys back in May, I wasn’t too fussed — and this was a bit concerning, because I’d never not been fussed by anything by Clutch. I mean, it’s a good time, don’t get me wrong. But something doesn’t quite sit right. It sees a different approach of lyricism, with Neil taking a purely narrative approach, singing about things that happened, and the guitar’s got a notably fuzzier tone, with the mix being that bit dirtier than before. The problems that come with that are, unfortunately, numerous; the lyrics come across as, though refreshingly original, a little too on-the-nose, while the guitar sounds like its had some of its power sucked out of it, coming out a bit saturated and flat, rather than the fuzzy awesomeness it could have been.
Thing is, though, I bet it would sound great live. But as it is as a studio recording, Gimme the Keys doesn’t resonate, or particularly connect with the rest of the album, and kicking it off as the opening track, that’s a bad thing. Not a bad song, no, but this one’s a skipper. However, once you get to Spirit of ’76 you’ve got a nice reality check at track 2: Clutch are still going strong. It sounds heavier, the lyrics sound like they’re trying less hard to impress, and the melodies are stronger — the sound’s clicked, Clutch are back.
But they’re a little bit different to how you may know them. They somehow managed to get in Grammy-winning producer Vance Powell, and what he’s done, largely, is good. The mix is thicker and dirtier than it’s ever been for the band, and that new style coupled with Neil’s more direct lyrical approach and Tim Sult’s new guitar tones makes for a Clutch album that sounds both comfortably familiar and fresh. Powell’s brought something subtly different to the table, and it makes a surprisingly big difference. While feeling somewhat new and fresh, it does take a lot of its make-up from 2015’s Psychic Warfare, slipping in a few similar lyrical themes – even mentioning “psychic warfare” in one song – and having a similarly unrelenting energy, while the mix seems to get the sound of Psychic Warfare, but making it filthier, bringing the mid-range closer to the fore; the result we get here is an album which sounds very much like a sequel to its predecessor — take Book of Bad Decisions as Psychic Warfare 2, if you like.
With a big 56-minute run-time spread across fifteen tracks, Book of Bad Decisions brings together a merry bunch of tunes. This could mean one of two things. Either it’s bigger and better, with the more tunes the merrier, or it’s just not as well put together and concise as its predecessor. Unfortunately, while it is packed with CHOONS, Clutch’s latest slips into the latter option. Not limply, not disgraced by that fact, but it does slip behind Psychic Warfare for this reason. Not many albums are as good as that one, though, as many Clutch fans will agree. What happens with their latest record, is that, because there are so many tracks on it, there are a few duds in amongst the absolute choons. The aforementioned Gimme the Keys could be removed from the tracklist and I’d be happy, while Weird Times, while fun and with its good moments, has a lazy hook and really struggles to stand on its own two feet as a good song compared to the rest in the album, and finally, A Good Fire sounds like classic mid-naughties Clutch, but it is for that reason it falls a little flat, because it sounds done before, while the melodies are just a bit weak.
You’ve also got the problem posed by Powell’s production. Although I think the Psychic Warfare sequel-ness works well, the mix just doesn’t sound as good. I mean, turn it up LOUD and you’ve got something that sounds awesome, but just listening to Book of Bad Decisions normally, it sounds a bit flat, at least compared to those best mixed Clutch albums of the past, be it Blast Tyrant, Earth Rocker or its 2015 predecessor that I keep banging on about. The issue is, because it’s that bit thicker and dirtier, the mix doesn’t allow each component of the music to stand out, and it can sound somewhat muffled. I think it would really benefit from the drums, for example, having a bit more pop and brightness to them, or the guitar for that matter.
However, it certainly doesn’t sound bad. As a standalone album, when not compared to any of their previous ones, Book of Bad Decisions sounds absolutely fine, and even when compared, it still sounds fine. It is a shame, and I think it could have made a decent difference had the mix been a bit brighter, but damn, holy balls and oh boi, there are some choons on this disc that a slightly mediocre mix don’t get in the way of.
This album is groovy with a G, R, O, O, V and a Y. For the most part, the energy is unrelenting, the funk explodes out the speakers and Neil sounds hella powerful for a 46-year-old. Dad rock this ain’t yet. These middle-aged men still have the awesome, in-your-face energy and power they’ve had for years, and if they are aging, they’re doing it like a fine wine. These bois are still on top form and it’s brilliant to see the record selling so well. If Greta Van Fleet are supposed to be the new flagholders of rock, they’re gonna have to topple these Maryland rockers first. (Well, and flippin’ Foo Fighters, but that’s by the by…)
Because holy crapples HOW TO SHAKE HANDS IS A FLIPPIN’ CHOON. Coming in at track four, this song, and second single, wouldn’t you know, is the new X-Ray Visions, even The Mob Goes Wild. It epitomises the unique nature of Clutch as a band because while politically charged, it’s not taking a jab at Trump, it’s just Neil and his merry bunch having a laugh, providing a refreshingly fun take on the ridiculous nature of today’s political climate, and when he shouts “what a time to be alive”, you start to believe him. Neil tells us about how he would become president, how he would “go for a ride on a UFO”, play “live music in the Whitehouse” and put “Jimi Hendrix on the twenty dollar bill”, and he screams this atop layers of pounding riffage, sweet bass licks and relentless drumbeats — what the hell isn’t good about that? What results is a song that makes me grin as gleefully as the band who’s playing it, and that’s exactly what I want when I listen to this band.
How to Shake Hands isn’t the only song on the album that does this, either. In Walks Barbarella is a trumpet-pumped blast of fun, slinging approving head-nods, grins and goosebumps out of its sheer entertainment factor. Vision Quest comes next, pure fast-tempo rock ‘n roll, with pianos tapping and all, while Clutch make it truly their own with hard-hitting power chord stabs and slammed drums. Emily Dickinson rolls in at track eight setting things right after the small misstep of Weird Times, doing too what A Good Fire failed to do: sound like a mid-naughties Clutch song, say, straight outta the depths of 2007’s From Beale Street to Oblivion, but slap that new-found energy and joy of what their sound’s developed into and make it sound fresh, powerful, but oh-so-nicely familiar. The next track Sonic Counselor bounces in with a slick drumbeat and establishes itself as riff heaven, with the brilliantly southern, bluesy riff bouncing off the groovy back-bone that are the drums and bass, laying the foundation for one of the best hooks on the album. Ghoul Wrangler at track eleven maybe doesn’t hit the highest heights of the album, but again, it’s got one hell of a hook, oh my.
Two of the strongest songs on the album follow, H.B Is In Control and Hot Bottom Feeder. H.B Is In Control manages to fit so much into three minutes, be it Neil’s best lyrics since X-Ray Visions, an extremely catchy chorus, or a fantastic, alternating collection of riffs – and cowbell, mate – and I cannot wait to scream “IF THIS IS A JOKE, WELL IT AIN’T FUNNY” when I see them live. This song, alongside How To Shake Hands, really sums up what Clutch are about, it’s memorable, unique, heavy and hella catchy, yes, but most importantly, it makes you smile. Hot Bottom Feeder, on the other hand, is literally a recipe for making crab cakes. Only Clutch can make something so mundane as that sound so awesome. The last two songs are also great. Paper & Strife, if perhaps forgettable, is a very solid track, and Lorelei is the low-riding, progressive finisher that the album deserves.
So while there is a bit of filler here and there, there are about as many amazing songs on Book of Bad Decisions as there are on any of their best efforts. I think perhaps the riffs don’t sound as effective as they could due to the saturating tone that Tim’s used, but his guitar work is just as good as ever. Jean-Paul Gaster establishes himself further as one of the best drummers around in the filthy, slammed and varied beats put out on this record, and Dan Maines brings a little more variety to the fore with his bass playing than before, with the bass taking the centre stage on a few occasions, particularly in the title track. This title track, being inCREDiBLY catchy, acts as the pinnacle of one of this record’s strongest qualities — its melodies. Catchy music is good, agreed? Well, there’s a lot of hooks and more you’ll remember from this one. Thing is, that even stands true for those worse songs on the record that I went through — which are by no means bad songs, just not on the same level of awesomeness as the best on the disc. With that in mind, take my criticisms with a little pinch of salt here, because I love most everything on this album.
At the end of the day this has been an extortionately long review of a rather simple thing. Book of Bad Decisions, in conclusion, is a great rock album, and a really fun one at that. Vance Powell’s production has meant we’ve got Clutch as we know and love them, but a little bit different. For better or for worse, through this we’ve got some bangers, some choons, and some CHOICE cuts, in an hour-long funk-fest of stoner rock groove. Compare it to Psychic Warfare or Blast Tyrant, and it’s a far less concise cut of an album, a couple of songs could be removed and I’d be fine, while the mix is indeed disappointing, if not particularly damaging. Nonetheless, the point remains that Book of Bad Decisions is a great rock album. As a standalone release and a Clutch album, it stands strong on its two big ol’ feet – this one comes recommended to anyone into rock music. Up the Clutch!!
BEST TRACKS: How To Shake Hands, In Walks Barbarella, H.B Is In Control, Hot Bottom Feeder, Sonic Counselor
WORST TRACKS: Gimme the Keys, Weird Times, A Good Fire
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