Friday, May 10, 2013

Earth Rocker and the Rock 'N Roll Wars Part I

I know I'm a bit late to the party but after several weeks of primarily addressing current events (and B-grade horror films) I'm finally going to weigh in on Clutch's latest album, the aptly titled Earth Rocker, which was released in March of this year. As long time readers of this blog may remember I already analyzed the Maryland four piece's 2004 classic Blast Tyrant, an album laden in esoterica from the lyrics on down to the artwork, previously. For the uninitiated I will proceed with a brief rundown of the group.

Comprised of vocalist (and sometime guitarist) Neil Fallon, guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster, the band formed in Germantown, Maryland in 1991. They soon scored a record contract and released their first album in 1993, the first in what presently stands as 10 studio albums in a little over two decades of activity. While many outfits would have spent their creative juices at such a pace Clutch has remained remarkably consistent, with many fans feeling that they didn't even begin releasing many of their best albums until the mid-00s.

Clutch is generally lumped into the "stoner rock" gerne (a style of music that I have found to be highly synchro- mystic, as I noted before here) but their sound encompasses various styles. On the one hand they have a strong classic rock flavor, being especially reminiscent of the power trios of the late 1960s/early 1970s (i.e. the Experience, Cream, Mountain and especially early Grand Funk Railroad) with a slight hint of early Led Zeppelin and even Funkadelic. On the other hand much of their catalog has a modern air thanks to an ever so slight influence from late 1980s/early 1990s alt metal bands who could work a groove (think Faith No More and Jane's Addiction). Typically their albums have alternated between the bluesier outings (i.e. 1998's The Elephant Riders and more recent releases such as 2005's Robot Hive/Exodus, 2007's From Beale Street to Oblivion, and 2009's Strange Cousins From the West) and the more straight up rocking affairs (the 1995 self-titled album, 2001's Pure Rock Fury, and the after mentioned Blast Tyrant) but their sound has remained based upon monster grooves, blues-spiked heavy riffs, and Fallon's one-of-a-kind vocals (think of a demented version of Grand Funk Railroad's Mark Farner).

Besides being one of the absolute best straight up heavy rock bands of their generation, Clutch (or at least singer Neil Fallon) are clearly something of conspiracy theory buffs -- anyone who disputes that statement should listen to the lyrics of early classics such as "Escape From the Prison Planet" (which predated the Alex Jones website by several years, but makes an excellent send up of it none the less) and "Animal Farm". Fallon has also heavily incorporated deep politics, mythology, and the occult into his lyrics over the years and the artwork of many recent albums have also reflected these interests.

The last album Clutch had released was 2009's Strange Cousins from the West, an album generally perceived as solid but lacking in some of the magic that made the prior stretch of albums (beginning with 2004's Blast Tyrant, encompassing 2005's Robot Hive/Exodus, and concluding with 2007's From Beale Street to Oblivion) classic in the eyes of many fans. As a whole, Clutch had seemingly exhausted the blues explorations that had dominated their sound in recent years. Thus, when news of a new album began to emerge last year it was unsurprising that early rumblings indicated it would be a return to the more up-tempo style that they had employed on 2001's Pure Rock Fury and 2004's Blast Tyrant.

I'm generally skeptical when middle-aged rockers start talking about how their going to kick out the jams like they did nearly a decade ago but it's not exactly like Clutch will ever be mistaken for Meshuggah and they didn't slow the tempos down dramatically when they started going in a bluesier direction around 2005 anyway. Given the incredible consistency they've displayed over the years, I allowed myself some tentative optimism for the next album and I was not ultimately disappointed.

Indeed, when the Hawkwind-ian album cover and oh-so chthonic title were released late last year my anticipation immediately began to skyrocket as I suspected that Clutch would once again find themselves deep within the synchro-mystic currents. That suspicion has proven to be correct as Earth Rocker comes off at times almost like a tribute to Christopher Knowles' sure-to-be-classic The Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll, a book that regular readers of this blog know I have adapted to several of my own theories. In the after mentioned title Knowles essentially argues that rock 'n roll is a kind of synchronistic descendent of the ancient Mystery traditions of the Mediterranean.
"... Over time, I come to realize that rock 'n' roll is in fact the direct descendent of the Mysteries, which had evolved and adapted to suit the needs and customs of postwar American secular culture.
"What did the Mysteries offer that other cults of the time did not? Almost exactly what rock 'n' roll would, thousands of years later. Drink. Drugs. Sex. Loud music. Wild pyrotechnics. A feeling of transcendence --leaving your mind and your body and entering a different world, filled with mystery and danger. A personal connection to something deep, strange, and impossibly timeless. An opportunity to escape the grinding monotony of everyday life and break all the rules of polite society. A place to dress up in wild costumes and dance and drink and trip all night.
"Mystery cult centers where the agent equivalence of today's clubs and concert halls, which may be why so many of the old pagan place-names are still in use -- the 'Orpheum,' the 'Apollo,' the 'Academy,' the 'Palladium,' and on and on. Just as in the Aquarian Age of the Sixities, some Mystery cults were relatively socially acceptable (think the Beatles) and some were seen as a sign that the world was going to hell in a handbasket (think the Rolling Stones)."
(The Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll, pgs. 6-7)

For the most part I concur with Mr. Knowles' premise, but I think he errs somewhat in tracing rock 'n roll back to the ancient Mysteries. In point of fact, I think that this tradition goes back even further --to what was possibly the very first religious tradition, namely shamanism. Rogue historian Peter Levenda has seemingly come to a similar conclusion, but he argues that our modern secular culture  has robbed rock 'n roll and similar forms of expression somewhat of their possible shamanistic transcendence.
"What is compelling about the shamanistic approach to spiritual freedom is that the very practices which the Buddhists believe tie one down to attachments on the material plane are the same practices the shamans used to attain supernatural powers. Yes. Sex, drugs and ... well, drumming. Tools that had been used by occultists, artists and shamans for millenia gradually became part of the culture, and in so doing were robbed of their transcendnt influence. Just as the scientists would have us worship technology in place of religion, we find ourselves using the technology of religion as entertainment. Yet, even then, there is some 'redeeming social value."
(Sinister Forces Book III, pg. 379) 
Earth Rocker is most certainly of this shamanistic currents, and even seems to unconsciously address some of the philosophical issues Levenda notes above, as we shall see. If nothing else, the album is a seeming ode to the shamanistic tradition that runs throughout the history of rock 'n roll, the traditions of which even being cleverly referenced throughout the course of the album. While the album cover clearly echoes Hawkwind, the opening number and title track gives a shout out to the title track of Funkadelic's Let's Take It To The Stage album while simultaneously hailing the chthonic nature of rock 'n roll itself. Indeed, Fallon almost makes "Earth Rocker" into a prayer to the rock 'n roll gods when he intones "I will suffer no evil/my guitar will guide me through" midway through.

Things really get going with track three, "Mr. Freedom," which must simultaneously be the most apt and humorous depiction of the whole Tea Party movement yet. Fallon offers some well placed jabs such as: "Serious business on your lapel/Let people know how you feel/And every bumper sticker on the back of your car/Makes you feel a little more real" and "I bet you would like nothing better/Than for the shit to hit the fan/And from the safety of your armchair perfectly lay those plans/That no one else but you could possibly understand."

Thus begins a trio of piercing political rockers that make up the backbone of what is the A side of this album on vinyl. Next up is "D.C. Sound Attack!", a swipe at the neocon wing of the right. The chorus is especially noteworthy:

 Naturally no sympathizer
 I'm a war monger baby
 Gonna industrialize ya
 Trouble I love
 Peace I do despise
 You're a war monger baby
And you know you can't deny
 Hell hounds on your trail
 What a pity
 But that's the price you pay
 Shaking hands in Necro-city
Hell hounds on your trail
 What a pity
Shaking hands in Necro-city  

Hell hounds, often depicted as black dogs, have a rich mythological tradition, especially in northern Europe, dating back centuries.
"Popular beliefs about what black dogs are are divided. They are ghosts of dogs, some say, or ghosts of the dead taking animal form. In earlier times --sightings of them have been continuous down through the centuries --they were thought of as manifestations of the Devil or, at least, as witches' familiars. They certainly possess all the usual daimonic ambiguity, as well as an archetypical resonance which echoes the black dogs that guard treasure in fairy tales, and extends all the way back to such mythological dogs as triple-headed Cerberus who guards the Underworld. In Celtic cultures they fit naturally into the usual fairy framework, whether as the Isle of Man's Buggane or Moddy Dhoe, or as the Scottish Highlands' cu sith. In Ireland, black dogs are only one of many fairy creatures."
(Daimonic Reality, Patrick Harpur, pg. 69)

More recently they became a reoccurring staple of rock 'n roll's mythology, thanks in no small part to the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson.
"Although every form of music has had it satanic influences -- and music probably its origins as drum beats and chants in primeval rituals performed in the same darkened caves were the first art was painted and the first theater enacted --in the present era we can trace the fusion of music and madness to the blues composer and guitars, Robert Johnson.
"Johnson (1911-1938) began playing the juke joints and road houses of Mississippi during the Depression in the early 1930s, after a tragic life in which his 16-year-old wife and newborn baby both died in childbirth, an event that came in the wake of Johnson's own illegitimate birth, his childhood at a variety of homes and under a variety of names, but always to the soulful sound of the Mississippi Delta blues. He was murdered --poisoned was strychnine --by a jealous husband on August 16, 1938 at the age of 27, but not before he had recorded some famous and influential track, like 'Terraplane,' 'Hellhound on my Trail,' and 'Little Queen of Spades.'"
(Sinister Forces Book III, Peter Levenda, pg. 146-147)

This is only scratching the surface. In the wake of Johnson's death a legend began to emerge that he had sold his soul at some country crossroads to the devil in exchange for becoming the greatest guitar player to ever live. Johnson himself added to this legend via songs such as "Crossroads" and "Hellhound..." , where Johnson projected a frantic desire to keep moving so as to avoid those hounds of hell. Incidentally (or not) Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic and witchcraft, was often believed to appear at crossroads with hell hounds at her side. Hecate was also said to be the goddess of necromancy, a practice that is subtly mentioned in "D.C. Sound Attack!" ("Necro-city," is as apt a description of Washington D.C. as ever there was).

But I digress --Much more on the various myths surrounding Robert Johnson can be found here for those interested.

Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads is a glorious metaphor for the soul selling that happens daily in our nation's capital to keep the war machine churning, if I do say so. Thus, "DC Sound Attack!" manages to echo rock 'n roll's legendary origins even as it ridicules one of its staunchest adversaries, the American right. This is but the first reference to this ongoing conflict that it will appear again throughout the course of Earth Rocker, as we shall see.

The next track, "Unto the Breach," is the third of the political trinity spread across side A, though it doesn't seem to have as specific a target as tea baggers or war mongers. The opening verse invokes images of a colossal struggle breaking out at a changing of the ages ( i.e., what much of the world is presently experiencing) with lines such as "Hobgoblins and Morrismen/Fighting in the streets/Hot continual breakdown/Give them lightening."

Curiously, both hobgoblins and Morris men have connections to the Robin Hood myths. Hobgoblins, and goblins in general, are related to Earth elementals, commonly depicted as gnomes. According to 33rd degree Freemason Manly P. Hall the word goblin is derived from the name of the king of the gnomes:
"The gnomes are ruled over by a king, whom they greatly love and revere. His name is Gob; hence his subjects are often called goblins. Medieval mystics gave a corner of creation (one of the cardinal points) to each of the four kingdoms of nature spirits, and because of their earthly character the gnomes were assigned to the north  --the place recognized by the ancients as the source of darkness and death. One of the four main divisions of human disposition was also assigned to the gnomes, and because so many of them dwelt in the darkness of caves and the gloom of forests their temperament was said to be melancholy, gloomy and despondent. By that it is not meant that they themselves are of such disposition, but rather that they have special control over elements of similar consistency."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, pgs. 334-335)
The most well-known hobgoblin is Puck, a mythological being of English folklore (likely based off of the Greco-Roman god Pan) who appears in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. At some point (possibly due to the after mentioned Shakespeare play) Puck began to be associated with the figure of Robin Goodfellow, which is sometimes used as an alternative name for Robin Hood. Of Puck, one of the fairies in A Midsummer's Night Dream,upon recognizing him, states:

that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call'd Robin Goodfellow: are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?


Morris men were the participants in a medieval folk dance known as the Morris dance that possibly originated as a sword dance. Peasants throughout the English countryside reportedly performed it as early as the 15th century and variations of it have been found throughout Europe. The poet and mythologist Robert Graves believed that it was rooted in an ancient fertility ritual that was eventually incorporated into the Robin Hood myths.
"Many of these greenwood marriages, blessed by a renegade friar styled Friar Tuck, were afterwards formally confirmed in the church-porch. But very often 'merrybegots' were repudiated by their fathers. It is probably because each year, by old custom, the tallest and toughest village lad was chosen to be Little John (or 'Jenkin') Robin's deputy in the Merry men masque, that Johnson, Jackson and Jenkinson are now among the commonest English names --Little John's merrybegots. But Robin did as merrily with Robson, Hobson, Dobson (all short for Robin), Robinson, Hodson, Hudson and Hood; Greenwood and Merrimen were of doubtful paternity. The Christmas 'merrimake'... also produced its crop of children. Who knows how many of the Morrises and Morrisons derived their patronymics from the amorous 'morrice-men', Marian's 'merry-weathers'?"
(White Goddess, pg. 398)

The two seem unlikely foes given that hobgoblins can be synonymous with Robin Hood and Morris men are essentially another name for Merry men. But as the song progresses we possibly get a glimpse of why they are fighting in the streets, beginning with the chorus:

 Waiting on the corner for the Swiss Guard to arrive to arrive
 And when they do we'll battle them and rattle them
 Halberd versus mind versus mind
 Once more unto the breach!

While the Swiss Guard is commonly associated with the Papacy nowadays for much of the Renaissance they were high-priced mercenaries who served as the praetorian guard for any number of European royal families. A halberd was a battle ax they commonly wielded in the early days. In the context of the song, these images are seemingly used to invoke a conflict between the old ruling class (i.e. the aristocracy, the clergy, the business elite, etc) verse the coming generation of tech heads. This is further reinforced by the second verse, which celebrates several groundbreaking advances.
 Like the Gutenburg Bible
 We're the movable type
 Very transient very influential
 Like the Large Hadron Corridor
 The more you see
 The less you understand
 The atmosphere is getting volatile
The Gutenberg Bible was significant because it featured the first widespread use of movable type, an invention that would massively spread literacy throughout Europe (and eventually the rest of the world), spurring untold amounts of innovation. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world's largest and highest energy particle accelerator. It has been instrumental in research involving the Higgs boson, commonly referred to in the media as the "God particle" because it is said to be what caused the "Big Bang." In general the Large Hadron Collider is one of the greatest engineering achievements in human history and will likely have a profound implications for how we understand the world.

a possible signature of a Higgs boson
Apparently the Large Hadron Collider was incorporated into Dan Brown's conspiratorial novel Angels and Demons. From what I can discern the plot point revolves around the LHC creating some type of antimatter that is meant to be used as a weapon against the Vatican. While this plot point quite possibly influenced Neil Fallon's choice of imagery in "Unto the Breach" I cannot comment further as I have not read Angels and Demons nor have I seen the movie adapted from it.

What would be the A side of Earth Rocker ends with the album's sole ballad, a moody number called "Gone Cold ." The song seems to recount a devastating breakup or possibly a terrifying experience with entheogens. It is a solid closer and what I shall end with for the time being. In part two of this series I shall begin dissecting in earnest the ongoing war between rock 'n roll and the Establishment, as depicted in Earth Rocker. Stay tuned.


No comments:

Post a Comment