This thirteenth studio album from Maryland hard rock touring machines Clutch sounds good from the outset but it gets better. I liked Slaughter Beach more than I did Red Alert (Boss Metal Zone). I liked Mountain of Bone more than I did Slaughter Beach. And I had a blast with Nosferatu Madre, which grabbed me immediately and is still probably my favourite song here. It's a simple song but a highly effective one from its opening riff, which plays up the Sabbath influence that's never far away with Clutch. The rolling drums over that simple guitar work so well. It's over and done in 3:27 and, if Mercy Brown hadn't kicked in with bells, I'd have just repeated it for a while.
Red Alert is a up tempo opener and it sounds good, especially when its urgency dissipates and the breakdown sounds fascinating, maybe in the vaguely mystical way suggested by the cover art. The kinda sorta title track is quintessential Clutch, at once overtly simple but deceptively ingenious. It flows along on another ocean of grooves, just like everything here because there are few bands in the business who are so effortless with their conjuration of groove. Mountain of Bone has one of my favourite grooves here, built out of power chords and rolling drums. They're all good songs.
But then Nosferatu Madre arrives and the album levels up. As it continues, we're treated to a set of tracks that all sound immediately recognisable as Clutch but shift into slightly different musical territories. We Strive for Excellence is another urgent song but it's sassy too, which isn't a typical combination and not an easy one to master. Skeletons on Mars finds a spacy groove, some synths adding to an impressive use of feedback to conjure the scene. This one absolutely demands more listens, because one isn't enough. Three Golden Horns follows suit, seeping into our skins.
After Nosferatu Madre, which I find myself having to deliberately keep away from just so that I can review the rest of the album, my favourites here are Mercy Brown and Jackhammer Our Names, a very different pair of tracks that move even further from the default Clutch sound. It's perhaps telling that the former is at the very heart of the album and the latter closes it out.
Mercy Brown feels epic and, I guess, for Clutch it is, given that it runs an expansive 5:15. Yeah, that doesn't sound like much but this is Clutch and not Dream Theater. That's almost two minutes more than Nosferatu Madre and a minute long than anything else on offer. These nine songs wrap up in not much over half an hour because this band has no fat on its bones. What Mercy Brown has are a few elements that shift into proggy territory for them, not just those bells but a second half with a Clare-Torry-style vocalisation solo over the music.
Jackhammer Our Names feels rather like Nick Cave, because it's brooding and poetic and also for a few very recognisable chord progressions. the haunting vocalisation that floats behind the late parts of the song helps that too. It's the quietest piece of music here, but that doesn't mean that it isn't heavy, because it is very heavy, just in a different way. Mercy Brown adds the departures to their heavy sound. This one replaces their heavy sound with a different heavy sound. While it felt a little derivative on a first listen, it keeps speaking to me on repeats.
And, quite frankly, so does everything here, though the early songs are taking longer to engage to the full degree. I don't think they're just overshadowed by Nosferatu Madre—yeah, I finally took those self-imposed restraints off and went back to it to find it as glorious as ever. They're merely Clutch songs that sound like Clutch songs, while everything else adds a little something new. Last time I saw Clutch live was in support to Motörhead, which immediately dates that gig. It's great to see that, thirteen albums in, they're still absolutely on top of their game.