Friday, January 17, 2014

The Stoner Rock Mysteries: The Veil of Isis

One of my New Year resolutions was to get back into attending concerts. I did not take in any during 2013 save for a local hardcore band called Harsh a few days before my birthday and the invigorating night on the town immediately reminded me of all the great things rock 'n roll is capable of in a live setting. Thus, it seemed especially appropriate to start off the New Year by finally catching Clutch live.

Regular readers of this blog have no doubt begun to pickup on the fact that I am a huge fan of the Maryland-based four piece. For those of you just tuning in, check out my reviews of 2004's Blast Tyrant (which can be found here) and 2013's Earth Rocker (a two parter that is located here and here) for a more in depth account of my thoughts on the band.  In brief, I've noted that the band's unique blend of 70s hard rock and 90s alternative/stoner metal with lyrics steeped in mythology, conspiracy theories, political history, and general high weirdness are a synchro-mystical goldmine. Clutch vocalist (and occasional guitarist) Neil Fallon could easily rival the great Robyn Hitchcock when it comes to surreal word play. But more on Clutch in a moment.

 The bill consisted of three bands: Crobot, The Sword, and Clutch. All three groups fall under the somewhat catch-all banner of "stoner rock", a genre that includes everything from desert rock, sludge metal, traditional doom, occult rock, retro heavy rock, heavy psych, space rock, drone, fuzz rock and so forth. In general, I've found this genre to be highly synchro-mystical and twilight language laden, as noted before here and here. What's more, this curious aspect of the genre has only become more pronounced in recent years as more and more groups have adopted occult and mythological trappings. In extreme cases groups such as In the Labyrinth and Sabbath Assembly have attempted to recreate the hymns of the ancient Mystery religions and the Process Church of the Final Judgment, respectively. 

Given that both The Sword and Clutch make heavy use of mythology and the occult in their lyrics and images I was expecting the concert to be quite synchro-mystical and I was not disappointed. I took in the show at Jacksonville's Freebird Live venue. Started in 1999, Freebird Live was originally a restaurant that featured live music nightly and was adorned with Lynard Skynard memorably (the legendary Southern rock outfit was founded in Jacksonville), hence the name. A few years later it dropped the restaurant aspect and focused solely on pointing on shows.

Freebird Live
 The venue had a groovy setup --It's a two-story deal with a good chunk of the second floor missing so that stage can be easily viewed. It features two fully stocked bars on either floor and a balcony that wraps around the exterior of the venue for the smokers. With a 700 person capacity, Freebird Live manages a relatively intimate feel. Frankly, its about as big a place to take in a rock concert as one wants to risk without losing some of the magic. On the whole, it comes off as a smaller and far less garish version of the House of Blues chain.  

By the time I arrived at the venue a little after eight the opening act, Crobot, was already about halfway through their set. I soon came to regret my tartness after taking in a few of the songs performed by the quartet hailing from central Pennsylvania. I had been expecting this group to be a thrash act because I inexplicably confused them with Prong (who frequently tour with Clutch) and was pleasantly surprised by their sound. Led Zeppelin is clearly the group's chief influence, with some traces of Thin Lizzy and 1970s Pentagram (singer Brandon Yeagley even vaguely resembles a young Bobby Liebling) thrown in for good measure. The group has a modern edge to their sound, however, that recalls Soundgarden as well as Clutch themselves.

As with many retro-centric groups, Crobot has a metaphysical bent to their lyrics. "Good Times in the Bandlands", for instance, name checks the legendary Native American shaman Passaconaway and the Thunderbird (a great breakdown of the high weirdness surrounding the myths of the Thunderbird can be found here) when not warning of the necromancer. Naturally, this was the song the group lurched into shortly after I entered the venue. Other tracks are not quite so synchro-mystically laden, but frequently allude to mythology and conspiracy theories as well as reveling in sci-fi trappings --their debut is called The Legend of the Spaceborne Killer, after all. There have been some rumblings that Yeagley and guitarist Chris Bishop (who did the album's artwork) wish to do a graphic novel based upon the album's songs at some future date. Needless to say, its packed full of material idea for such things.

The Legend of the Spaceborne Killer album cover
The Sword took the stage shortly after Crobot broke down their gear, but not before Recluse procured a copy of Spaceborne Killer's from the latter's merch stand. In the process Recluse stumbled upon Yeagley, who came swaggering up to inform me that my Sleep shirt was "fuckin' awesome, brother." Thus, my streak of encountering performing musicians at shows continues unabated. Remember kids, wearing the right shirt to a metal concert is very important --members of performing bands almost always end up telling me how cool mine are as do random strangers in the crowd. Encountering both are always interesting experiences. But I digress -- On to The Sword.

The Sword is one of those groups Recluse has always felt that he should dig a lot more than he does. When the Austin, Texas quartet first started out in the mid-00s there sound was heavily influenced by Dio-era Black Sabbath and Sleep as well as the thrasher tendencies of High on Fire and Black Cobra. Their first two albums --Age of Winters and Gods of the Earth --were enjoyable enough releases featuring the type of fantasy-laden imagery and lyrical topics this author is usually a sucker for. But something about the band just didn't click.

The Sword
I began to warm up more to the group after the release of their third album, 2010's Warp Riders. With its wonderful sci-fi imagery and plot line as well as more ambitious song structures and instrumentation, the album at times echoes BOC circa Secret Treaties (which long time readers of this blog will recognize as high praise from me if they have read my examination of the album, which can be found here and here). Still, 2012's Apocryphon flew under my radar that year. I only picked it up recently in preparation for the show, a state of affairs I now regret. The album's cover should have clued me in on the fact that The Sword just keep getting more interesting with each release.

The cover, designed by acclaimed comic book artist J.H. Williams III, is in fact meant to depict Isis standing over an apocalyptic world. The Eye of Horus appears upon Isis' hooded forehead while she makes the "silence gesture" generally associated with the god Harpocrates, who in some accounts is her son and/or grandson. To say that this image is symbolically loaded would be an understatement. As I'm sure many of my readers are well aware, the goddess Isis is hugely important in the Mystery schools of the ancient Mediterranean.
"The most illustrious of all Ancient Egyptian goddesses, Isis is depicted searching for her murdered brother and husband, Osiris, whom she restored to life with her breath...; Suckling her son, Horus; or in funeral procession protecting the dead in the shadow of her wings and bringing them back to life. From her faithfulness and devotion, she would appear originally to have been a hearth-goddess, but, according to legend, she 'obtained the secret name of the all-powerful god,' Ra, and became his equal in power, spreading her influence across the universe. Every living being was a drop of Isis' blood. In fact, Isis was worshiped as the all-powerful universal goddess all around the Mediterranean Basin, as devoutly in Greece and Rome as in the Near East. 'I am the mother of the whole of Nature, mistress of the elements, the origin and principle of the ages, the supreme divinity, queen of the shades, the first of the dwellers in the sky, the unrivaled model of all the gods and goddesses. The pinnacles of the sky, the beneficial sea-breezes, the desolate silences of hell, I rule them all according to my will...' All esoteric groups regarded her as the mystagogue who held the secrets of life and death and resurrection. The ankh was the symbol of her boundless power. In all mystery religions of the early centuries of the Christian era, she was the embodiment of the female principle and sole magic source of fertility and transmutation."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 544)
Harpocrates, who is often depicted with his index finger across his lips in an indication of silence, is often described as the God of Silence. He is thought to represent the veil of secrecy surrounding the Mysteries by the conspiratorial right. In the case of Apocryphon secrecy is likely what is being invoked as well as the word can be translated as "secret writing." Singer, guitarist and head songwriter J.D. Cronise made it clear upon the album's release that this imagery was inspired by occult traditions. Of the album's title, he stated:
"The word Apocryphon came up while I was researching Gnosticism, early Christianity, theosophy, and other esoteric subjects... They're books that were either banned or removed from the biblical canon. The early church fathers felt that these teachings were either too advanced or dangerous for the masses to be exposed to because they encouraged thought that was antithetical to the church’s system of control, so they were considered heretical and dubbed apocrypha. You've got to look beyond what you're told to the totality of knowledge available to approach any sort of true understanding."
This of course was not the first time The Sword's work has taken a metaphysical slant --such things were already evident with earlier tracks such as "Maiden, Mother & Crone". But Apocryphon certainly took this aspect of the group to another level and its influence was prominently displayed in Freebird Live when I made the scene: a massive banner of Apocryphon's album cover hung across the back wall of the stage even during Crobot's set. Naturally a banner featuring Isis is most appropriate for any type of rock concert, but most certainly one of this nature.

Unfortunately The Sword's set was mired by a poor sound mix: Cronise's vocals were all but inaudible for much of the set. It's a really pity, because the combination of a surprisingly elaborate light show and the prominently displayed Mystery symbols created quite the atmosphere. The band was otherwise professional and their increasing use of synthesizers gives the group an even more pronounced Blue Oyster Cult feel at their most sinister. The song "Apocryphon", which closed both The Sword's set as well as the album of the same name, was quite striking thanks to the triggered use of synths throughout. They set the scene perfectly for a song steeped in Gnosticism, as the opening verse makes clear:

Set adrift in the multiverse
By the whims of fate
In thrall to the demiurge
We all await escape

"The Veil of Isis", Apocryphon's opener, also made a rousing appearance. The song, which slyly hints at the legends surrounding the death and resurrection of Osiris, revolves around the ever changing cycles of life. Of it, Cronise told Rolling Stone: "In essence, the song is about change... [It's about] moving from one phase of the natural cycle to the next and the recognition of the knowledge revealed when such transitions occur. The lyrics make reference to Isis, the goddess of nature and magic, and her brother/husband Osiris, the god of the dead and the afterlife, as agents of those changes and keepers of sacred knowledge. The 'veil' is that which hides from us the true nature of the universe that, during our earthly existence, is largely hidden from us."

The Sword even opened with "Tres Brujas", a Warp Riders song revolving around three witches and certain herbs that had been Recluse's favorite song by the group. In general, the set drew heavily from Riders and Apocryphon, which put The Sword's growing maturity on display when paired with earlier numbers. Despite sound problems, the set was suitably metal and mystical in equal measures. 

After an extended wait following the conclusion of The Sword's set, Clutch finally took the stage. During the down time the banner of Isis was taken down and replaced by one featuring the album cover for Clutch's latest album, Earth Rocker. It was a fitting shift. The more technical and sophisticated work of The Sword is befitting of the structured Mystery schools. Clutch, by contrast, is a far looser group. While all members of the group are individually fine musicians their music is built more around hypnotic grooves and blues-based hard rock riffs that have driven heavy rock since its earliest days. The cover of Earth Rocker immediately invokes Native American shamanism, and the live presence of Clutch does a fine job of capturing that primal place in the human consciousness.

Clutch's live shows have become semi-legendary and for good reason: They have a genuinely unique atmosphere. A large and continuous mosh pit was present practically throughout Clutch's entire set, but not of the "Let's knock someone out" variety. Rather, kids jumped around and swayed into one another throughout the set. When contact was made one was reminded of padded go-karts bumping into one another and rebounding in a variety of directions. These sights fit right in with the clouds of odorless pot smoke courtesy of portable vaporizers brandished by various members of the audience.

Even more striking was the crowd's reaction to Neil Fallon's lyrics: practically the whole audience sang along to every song throughout the set. Recluse has never been around a crowd as in to a band's lyrics as the one he encountered at the Freebird show. Despite the fact that the set was heavy with tracks from Earth Rocker, everyone seemed to know all the lyrics to whatever Clutch performed by heart. Given that Fallon's lyrics frequently reference cryptids, underground bunkers, aliens, Men in Black and political assassinations as well as mythological beings and the occult, this made for quite a surreal scene.

Fallon does his part to emphasis his lyrics to the crowd as well. Throughout the show he frequently used exaggerated hand gestures to play up his words, at times recalling the motions of orators from Ancient Greece or Rome, an art know as chironomia. The crowd was not to be out done and frequently mimicked Fallon's hand gestures --People were even hoisted up on other's shoulders to do this.

The band performed every song off of Earth Rocker, but not in the order as they appear on the album. There were also several numbers from prior albums, many of which happened to be both among Recluse's favorite Clutch song as well as their most synchro-mystical. Both "Escape From the Prison Planet" and "Animal Farm" off of 1995's self-titled album were performed. Both of these songs do an incredible job of capturing the zeitgeist of UFO and conspiracy culture in the 1990s, simultaneously echoing The X-Files and William Cooper in equal measures. The later song invokes underground bunkers and little grey men that "taste just like chicken they say" before channeling Hour of the Times at peak frenzy:

Carter is a clone
Dozen brother 'round the globe
MJ-12 damned us to hell
Scroll and Key, Skull and Bones
It's only just begun
Area 51
The spawn of Babylon

"Escape From the Prison Planet" has inevitably been co-opted by Alex Jones, but we shouldn't hold that against the song. It name checks Bob Lazar in addition to Men in Black, alien technology and an opening verse that at times feels like my day-to-day life. Clutch also performed "I Have the Body of John Wilkes Booth" from the self-titled as well, a song that alludes to the various conspiracy theories surrounding the possible escape of Lincoln's assassin as well as the creeping reemergence of fascism ("And I swear its never been like this before/Least not since 19 and 44") in modern America. At another point in the set Clutch performed the song "Abraham Lincoln" off of 2009's Strange Cousins From the West, a most fitting touch.

Lincoln and the Civil War have been alluded to frequently in Clutch's lyrics of the years
They also broke out "The Yeti" from 1998's The Elephant Riders. Not only is this song about the famous cryptid, but it also alludes to one of the most far out theories surrounding the creature, namely that it is some type of interdimensional being. The blog Phantoms and Monsters has a compelling rundown of such notions:
"A subscriber states that just because we don't understand how Bigfoot move in and out of another dimension or what their purpose is, doesn't rule out this possibility. He has questioned a variety of people that channel interdimensional beings and every time the answer turns out that Bigfoot are indeed interdimensional beings as well. There are many other beings that can move in and out of another dimension including fairies, gnomes, sprites, and others. Indigenous people worldwide will verify this as they have strived to maintain to keep their connection to earth and the natural beings while the ‘civilized’ world has nearly completely lost touch. Only young children and intuitive adults are able to see/feel these beings as they move in and out of other dimensions. It’s time for us to wake up to this possibility regardless of what conventional wisdom and science has to say about the matter. The evidence is there…time to become open to a broader perspective. 
"Well known paranormal investigator Jon-Eric Beckjord’s theories sum up much of the argument. He believed that Bigfoot and similar cryptids may be interdimensional beings that can occasionally take physical form for brief periods of time, but have the ability to ‘fade out’ and pass through ‘wormholes’, possibly to other dimensions or parallel universes. He reported to have had one of the creatures speak to him using telepathy, communicating the words ‘We're here, but we're not real, like what you think is real’. 
"Beckjord claimed that such entities may be able to actually disappear into thin air, or even shapeshift.  Beckjord maintained that the interdimensional hypothesis may possibly, if proven, explain why there are thousands of alleged Bigfoot creature sightings each year, yet no dead zoological physical body is ever found. To evidence these ideas, Beckjord accumulated a large collection of enlarged photographs that he says show, among other things, ‘half-Bigfoots’ and ‘invisible Bigfoots’, or possible aliens. The forms are often found in situations where the camera picked up images not seen by the witnesses, often due to distance. According to Beckjord, the images show primates, carnivores and beings not readily identified within known zoological classifications that resemble descriptions of aliens submitted to investigators. He conducted much field work, such as camping out at ‘window sites’ where, he said, Bigfoot activity is frequently seen. He collected his own photographic evidence of what he believes to be a ‘tribe’ of either Bigfoots or aliens at El Dorado National Forest."

In Clutch's hands the Yeti is depicted as a creature perpetually traveling through time:

The author looms above his page  
And thinks it strange that at his age 
He can not find the proper words  
To describe his only world. 
One would think that in a life  
Where no two snowflakes are alike 
One would have a brilliant rhyme  
For reaching every bit of time. 

Himalaya is my old time stomping ground  
(Oh yes, time is of the essence) 
Manitoba, better snows I've never found  
(Oh yes, time is of the essence)

During the performance I saw Clutch rearranged the verses, performing the final two (written out above) at the onset of the song, further enhancing its high strangeness. The song was carried into an extended jam that seamlessly evolved into "D.C. Sound Attack" off of Earth Rocker. It was easily one of the highlights of the night. 

When it was all said and done I slipped out of the venue just as Clutch was finishing up the final number of the encore, "Electric Worry". It was a surprisingly packed crowd for a Sunday night and having a nearly two hour drive looming ahead, I grudgingly called it a night. In the background the Earth Rocker shaman and swaying crowd loomed as my companion and I departed, silently echoing traditions that have reappeared upon these shores in one form or another since time immemorial.


  1. Wow! Thanks for the info. These bands sound right up my alley. It seems there is so much music that nobody knows about. Kinda reminds me of early 80s underground hardcore scene. If you didn't hear college radio or live near a big city, you didn't know it existed. Thanks again and I'll check out these bands!

  2. I like The Sword album. Clutch I enjoy, but not at the top of my list.

    Some other bands in this vein I would recommend: The Devil's Blood, Jess and the Ancient Ones, Pentagram (not new, but a mighty influence on the modern occult rock movement), Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats (as has been mentioned on this blog), and finally, for the uninitiated, the legendary solo career of Ronnie James Dio.

  3. 19Moon61-

    Glad you enjoyed the post. And yeah, there's usually great music being made, but in the past you had to be in the right location to even be aware of it. That's one of the things that make the Internet so cool.


    I love Uncle Acid --"Mind Control" made number four on my Top 13 0f '13 list. I also dig Pentagram immensely and totally agree. As far as older bands are concerned, I don't think Wino's work with the Obsessed and Spirit Caravan and the influence it had on the modern occult rock scene can be overstated either.

    Jess and the Ancient Ones are pretty cool as well but I could never warm up to the Devil's Blood. They come off as being a little to 80s for my taste.

    Not only is Dio's solo career great, but his work with Rainbow and Black Sabbath is outstanding as well and grossly overlooked to boot.