Saturday, May 18, 2013

Earth Rocker and the Rock 'N Roll Wars Part II

Welcome to part two in my examination of the stoner rock outfit Clutch's latest album, Earth Rocker, which came out in March this year. As I noted in part one of this series, both the genre of stoner rock as well as the band Clutch itself have strong strands of synchro-mysticism running through them. Clutch lead singer and sometime guitarist (as well as the occasional harmonica player) Neil Fallon clearly has more than a passing interest in mythology, the Fortean, and conspiracy theories, as the lyrics to songs such as "Minotaur," "The Yeti," "Animal Farm" (among many others) reveal.

the ever-bearded Neil Fallon

The latest album, Earth Rocker, is no exception. Indeed, virtually every Clutch album is riddled with enough synchro-mysticism to warrant closer inspection, but their latest offering seemingly delves (whether intentionally or not, I do not know) into a topic that is especially close to my heart, namely the ongoing war being waged against rock 'n roll by corporate America and their assorted allies. This is a topic that I've already discussed in much greater length during my examinations of the songs "American Pie" (yes, the classic by Don McLean) and "Dominance and Submission" (by the equally great Blue Oyster Cult), which can be found here, here, and here. Those of you unfamiliar with these articles are strongly advised to read them as a primer to the discussion that I'm about to embark upon.

the classic albums upon which the above-mentioned songs first appeared

In brief, the above-mentioned war was instigated by corporate America for a variety of reasons, but probably chiefly because rock 'n roll has always had the potential to be a truly populist revolt against the Establishment. This point was driven home to me while reading the box set notes in one of the  Nuggets compilations. For those of you unaware, Nuggets were a collection of compilations comprised of "one-hit-wonder" groups from the 1960s who briefly seemed poised to rival the Establishment bands (i.e. the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, etc.) that that era is primarily known for. While these groups were all but forgotten by general audiences for years they would inspire a generation of musicians to found the two most bountiful underground musical scenes the post-1960s would produce, namely heavy metal and punk rock (both of which continued to be a major thorn in the side of the Establishment until the 1990s). Why these movements, but especially the 1960s version of "proto-punk/metal," were so subversive and threatening to the Establishment was best summed up by record label owner and rock critic Greg Shaw when he wrote the following in the Nuggets linear notes:
"... why rock has been such an unstoppable force in all our lives: anybody can do it! 
"If this statement comes as a surprise, or you find yourself saying, 'Wait a minute...,' it's because this is a more closely guarded secret than the recipe for the Colonel's chicken. The record industry goes totally bananas when kids start making their own music. They spend a fortune signing every band in sight, then winnow out the ones who aren't 'professional' enough, lose a million or so bucks on each, and finally market the remaining handful as 'superstars' whose products we, in turn, will consume like dutiful sheep for years and years, until the next upheaval. That's the only way they can keep their fingers around the collective neck of the record buying public.  
"I fear that few, if any, of the artists on Nuggets measure up to the record industry's standards. Each came out of some suburban garage, and each, within a brief period (from 1965 to about 1968), somehow got themselves onto the radio with one monster song they created after maybe three weeks of music lessons. Those songs were grabbed up by kids who wanted to be just like them --and tried. It was so out of control that for a few years something like 63 percent of American kids under the age of 20 were in a rock band of some kind, and most of them were making records.  
"The only way The Man could put a stop to this barrage of bands was to send half the kids to Vietnam and the change the rules of radio so that DJs weren't allowed to play local records anymore. Finally, around 1970, things settled down. No more Purple Exploding Mushroom Band nonsense --you could have Carole King or Elton John, take it or leave it. (If you behaved yourself and bought all the Taylor family's releases, they might be nice and let you have Badfinger for dessert.) The record companies started getting rich again, and kids forgot about rock 'n' roll... for awhile."
(Nuggets Volume I box set booklet, "Sic Transit Gloria...: The Story of Punk Rock in the '60s," Greg Shaw, pgs. 17-18)

With all of this in mind, let us now turn our attention to what would be the opening number on Earth Rocker's B-side (I've opted to analyze this record from the perspective of how it would play on vinyl  as Fallon alleges that Earth Rocker was modeled after "classic LP length and pacing"), an anthem known as "The Face." Musically, this track seems to echo the Blue Oyster Cult (whose "black and white" trilogy may be one of the most grossly underrated runs in rock 'n roll history) classic "Cities On Flame with Rock 'N Roll" ever so slightly, certainly a fitting reference point for "The Face" is a rock 'n roll call to arms if ever there was one. Indeed, in an interview with Thee Obelisk (which is naturally the premier stoner rock blog on the Internet) Fallon claimed that the history of rock 'n roll, and the conflict that has raged around it, was very much on his mind when he wrote the lyrics for this track. Specifically, he stated:
"I don’t know what the right term would be, philosophy, or idea, or preoccupation that I had when we were writing this record was just kind of about rock and roll. The older I get the more I appreciate that I’ve been able to participate in the capacity that I have. But I get to thinking about how easy it is now in a lot of ways. It’s almost too easy. You hear rock and roll on the tv, and you see the image of the band running out of the van on stage in front of a crowd, and you see the product and it’s something like American Express. It’s easy to get music on your laptop. It’s easy to go see shows now. For us; I’m speaking about Western civilization. There was a time though not too long ago where that wasn’t the case. You can go back 30 years to where it was hard to get punk rock records. You had to drive to that one store and decide which two albums you might buy. It was hard to see shows. And you go back even farther and they were burning records and forbidding you to go to these shows. I’m glad we won the ability to listen and play rock and roll, but at the same time, I guess I have some kind of romantic nostalgia about the forbidden fruit of it and the riskiness and the danger of rock and roll. I think we kind of take it for granted that it’s rock and roll and it’s here and that’s the way it’s always been, and obviously that’s not the case."
Indeed. Christopher Knowles expressed similar sentiments in the introduction to his sure-to-be classic The Secret History Of Rock 'N' Roll (a book of which I much indebted to for my writings on rock music):
"I'm also writing in the hopes that people rediscover a culture and an art form too often taken for granted. The old stigma against rock 'n' roll never really went away. Middlebrow cultural critics in the Eighties and early Nineties were always looking for something to replace it, which may speak to an unconscious loathing instilled by their parents and teachers. Hip-hoppers, dance divas, and glossy country acts have been the music industry darlings since grunge died, usually leaving new rock band struggling for attention. Pirating and iTunes have reduce the album format to loss leader status.
"And somehow rock 'n' roll has survived..."

Lyrically "The Face"  seems to take a much dimmer view of the current times than Fallon indicated in the above quoted interview. Consider the opening verse:

 They arrive on a sunny day
 Offering the residence a better way
 Before you know it you're in line and chanting refrain
 They reel you in and then they turn you out
 First they tell ya you're gonna lose your soul
 And then they tell ya find another home
 And then ya take a good look around
And they stole your rock and roll
 And once it's gone you never get it back
Things become even more pointed with the first chorus:
 1000 Les Pauls burning in a field
 What rabid religion poisons their minds?
 1000 Jazz Masters thrown into the sea
 What measure of madness governs their time?

Anyone who didn't grow up in the South or the Midwest may not the able to truly appreciate the mentality it takes to be a metalhead (or any other of the more subversive types of rock 'n roll) in such regions. Considered the following description given by Sabbath Assembly (of whom I've written much more on here and here) front man David Nuss concerning his upbringings in Texas in an interview with Invisible Oranges:
"In the ’80s the whole backmasking (backwards messages in music) thing was going on. I was going to record burnings at churches. I had an older brother who was really into it. I was so confused because I was attracted to the music but then my brother would say 'we have to go to the Bible happening on Sunday.' I’d literally buy a Venom record and then take it to the record burning. It was crazy that I was doing it. I wanted the record but also felt like had to get it out of my life.
"I became a project for my brother because I wanted to play drums from an early age. I grew up on Sabbath and KISS and Led Zeppelin. My brother was concerned to the extent that he would take me to these revivals and bring me to the front. He’d explain the situation. I was a kid who had a passion for rock-and-roll and I literally went through exorcisms. They were trying to cast the demons out of me, the rock-and-roll demons. The minister at one event kept saying 'the devil is in the beat!' and 'the drummer is carrying the devil forward into the world..!'
"It was absolutely terrifying because I wondered what was inside of me. I wasn’t scared of the minister. I was scared of myself. I didn’t know why I had been chosen to be this bringer of Satan into the world. It’s ridiculous to talk about now but this paradigm is absolutely prevalent in America and elsewhere. Anything that moves us inside or moves us to dance is considered very dangerous..."

I've heard of more than a few such experiences from people who grew up in that era (I expect some of these more fringe churches never truly gave up the whole "backmasking" crusade). But I digress.

In the second verse Fallon starts getting downright mystical with his narrative:

In the beginning
There was void
The hand moved over
Then there was noise
Fire and water
Heaven and stone
Radio kings
Hammer and throne
The three pairs mentioned above, fire/water, heaven/stone, hammer/throne, all have interesting associations. Both fire and water share symbolic associations with purification and regeneration the world over. What's more, the two are frequently combined together in the occult.
"The symbolism of the Hebrews, the Seal of Solomon exhibits the triangle of fire, gold, or Light... and the triangle of water, or Blood... This Seal is the supreme symbol of Spir A unified with Matter, or God united with Man. It is a glyph of the Great Work, perfected in the O.T.O., by the union of Fire and Water, and thus represents the Ninth Degree."
(The Magical Revival, Kenneth Grant, pg. 142) 
the Seal of Solomon

The association of spirit unified with matter is reinforced by the pair of heaven (spirit) and stone (matter). The final pair of hammer and throne have slightly different symbolic associations, however. The hammer, for instance, is to some extent symbolic of spiritual will-power itself.
"In some respects both hammers and mallets are images of evil and of brute force. However, the symbolic converse of this interpretation is their identification with celestial instrumentality and the manufacture of the thunderbolt.
"The weapon of the Norse storm-god, Thor, was a hammer which had been forged by the dwarf, Sindri. It was also the tool used by the lame god of smithies, Hephaistos (Vulcan). When identified with the Vajra (thunderbolt), it was both creator and destroyer, the instrument of life and death. It is the symbol of Hephaistos and of initiation into metal-working..., the hammer standing for the shaping instrumentality of the Demiurge. When the hammer strikes the chisel, it is spiritual well-power activating the faculty of knowledge which craves out ideas and concepts and stimulates detailed knowledge."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 465)
the infamous hammer logo from Pink Floyd's The Wall

Conversely, thrones have traditionally been associated with divine authority.
"Thrones are also regarded as epitomes of the universe and are often decorated with an ornamentation which conjures up the elements of the cosmos. Sometimes they rest upon four figures or columns which call to mind the four points of the compass. To sit upon the throne without due right is to usurp almighty power, and becomes the crime of lese-majeste or even of lese-divinite. Thrones symbolize the Divine Right of Kings. They are also symbols of the persons exercising that power, as in a judgment from the throne, and bear witness to the permanence of authority and of its divine origin."
(ibid, pg. 999)
thrones (both the literal kind as well as the angelic) are symbolically important in Ezekiel's vision, displayed in the above image

Thus, with the association of the hammer with spiritual well-power seeking out knowledge and thrones with the Divine Right of Kings, this couplet could be seen as a call to cast off so-called divine authority. The appearance of the phrase "Radio Kings" is also interesting in this verse. Of course the classic Blue Oyster Cult song "Dominance and Submission" (of which I've written extensively upon, as noted above) also makes reference to these radio kings, or at least "kings of the radio."

"Radio King" was of course the name of the snare drum that was used from the mid-1930s until approximately the early 1960s. I've also gathered that regional acts that had scored a hit single within their areas in the late 1950s and early 1960s were also referred to as radio kings or kings of the radio. In the context of the song a radio king could also potentially be a shaman, who with their chants, drums, dances and drugs were very much the rock stars of the primitive world. Shamanism was of course the ultimate rejection of divine authority, as it forgoes instruction from an initiated priesthood and instead seeks out a direct spiritual experience.

Presumably this disembodied face (which naturally looks like a Native American shaman) that appears throughout Earth Rocker's cover art was inspired by the song "The Face"

From here the song goes into the chorus for a second time, with a slight variation, and does the same for the following verse only this time around "face" is used in place of "hand." In the above-mentioned interview with Thee Obelisk Fallon noted that the song had been named "The Face" as a working title, but "face" ultimately proved to fit rather nicely into the song's theme. Specifically he stated:
"That song started as 'The Face' as a working title before there was any lyrics. I wrote the lyrics and then I started thinking, 'Well now I gotta retitle it,' but I started thinking about it, and I remembered in rudimentary music class where you have 'Every Good Boy Does Fine,' and 'Face' to remember the space, F-A-C-E, the notes of the scale, that’s kind of a reference to music, and I changed the lyrics a bit. Instead of 'The hand moved over,' 'The face moved over,' and it seemed to be a synchronicity of the two things, the working title and the subject matter seemed to work."
Finally the song cycles back to the chorus, which is changed noticeably for the final two appearances, and also brings the theme full circle:

 Uncounted Les Pauls ascend to the sky
  Where there was darkness now only light
 Uncounted Jazz Masters rising up from the bottom of the sea
 The wicked are leveled the righteous are free

The next track, "Book, Saddle, & Go," is a bit of a return to the political slant of Earth Rocker's A side, though not without first indulging in a gloriously psychedelic intro that also makes for a brilliant bridge between this more conventional rocker and the prior epic (apparently the album's producer, Machine, was responsible for it's nearly seamless flow). As the title indicates, the song makes reference to motion and travel throughout. Specifically, the opening verse seems to be a reflection upon the wandering nature imposed upon the disenfranchised, working poor ("I know I ain't got a lot of money/But I got self-esteem/And in the golden age travel/That's really all you need"). It's the second verse, however, were things really start to get interesting:
 They call me the robber
 Highway man
Don't want to hurt nobody
 Just doing what I can
The galley after hours
 Man the captain  just won't listen
 If you don't turn this boat around
I'm going to kick the damn doors in!
The "highway man" reference is certainly apt within the context of an album awash in chthonic themes.
"A human society which is ordered and regulated on cosmic principle, demonstrably reflecting the order of nature and the heavens, is the only one which will attract and deserve general acceptance. Self-determination, however, is inherent in human nature, and seems to be a function that needs to be exercised. The universe proceeds through the constant interaction between order and chaos, and the earth was arranged accordingly. The cities, laid out to a cosmic pattern, incorporated a planned element of chaos, both in their architecture and in their societies. As every court had its fool, so every city should have a rude, rough quarter, like the back alley of Dorchester, lovingly described in Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge, outside the pale of civilized order. Between the centres of prehistoric settlement, large stretches of country were dedicated to the rule of chaos. Until recent times the waste places of Britain were haunted by outlaws, wanderers and those who sought initiation or a refuge from the rules of society . The division of the country into areas of order and anarchy according to its astrological character was strictly defined. The roads were sacred territory above the secular law. Under the old Molmutine legal code of England, never formally repealed, the highways were a sanctuary where the safety of travelers was assured and even outlaws were free from arrest. Because of their sacred nature, highway robbery was counted a sacrilege. Under these laws, it was claimed, a foreigner, even without a word of the native language, could pass freely through the country, meeting hospitality wherever he rested...
"... The legend of the earthbound spirit, forever roaming the highways and waste places of the world, bears the stamp truth, for its poetic value is eternal. The wandering god, the disguised king, the mysterious stranger at the wayside hearth, itinerant poet, tinker and peddler, all those romantic figures whose appeal to our aesthetic sense is direct and universal, represented a true archetype, the spirit of the earth."
(The New View Over Atlantis, John Michell, pgs. 211-212)

Thus, highway man is not simply a criminal but also a heretic. In the context of the song I daresay this is a false accusation, especially with the illusion to galleys, which were frequently rowed by either slaves or convicted criminals in both the ancient world and the Middle Ages. Fittingly the verse ends with Fallon issuing a warning about turning the "boat around" ASAP, surely a commentary on our own times.

The song then goes back into the chorus, which is expanded in the second go around to feature the lines "Pinkerton man murdering bastard/I'm going to get even get even with you." This is of course a reference to the notorious Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The Pinkertons were mercenary forces employed by various tycoons as labor spies and uniformed guards (and allegedly agent provocateurs and assassins as well) at mines, factories and along railroads, linking "Book, Saddle & Go" thematically with side A's "Unto The Breach" (which also made reference to the mercenary Swiss Guards).

the oh-so Masonic logo of the Pinkertons

"Oh, Isabella" is another epic in the mold of "The Face." Lyrically the song invokes chaos in the first verse, with Fallon recounting his return to Rockville from Hades "with nothing but a rucksack" all the while hinting at a significant betrayal. From there the song goes into it striking chorus;

 Oh Isabella your ship's run aground
 Kneel at the sword scream at the clouds
Oh Isabella there's smoke on the wind
 Jaguar and fever have taken your men
Presumably the Isabella in question is Isabella I of Castile, who united Spain along with her husband Ferdinand II of Aragon and who sponsored Columbus's initial voyage to the "New World." Obviously the historic Isabella's fate was much different than what is described in the above-mentioned lines. Thus, in the case of this song, I suspect that Isabella is a stand-in for the Vatican itself, who dubbed her the "Servant of God" during her canonization in 1974. Indeed, few would make for a better stand-in for the spread of Catholicism (by and large at the barrel of a gun or the point of the sword) in the New World then the legendary Catholic Queen.

Queen Isabella
In the second verse Fallon seemingly bemoans the hollowness of the modern world, describing himself as "running on the tight rope" over a canyon teeming with shoppers that grows ever "wider and wider." He then amusingly asks "what demons possessing/the clock and the compass?" The clock is of course symbolic of man's attempt to impose order upon the natural (and frequently chaotic) world. The compass has similar symbolic associations.
"In pictorial terms --and, to some extent, generally speaking -- compasses are regarded as emblems of the exact sciences and of the strict rules of mathematics, in contrast with free-ranging imaginative poetry. The notion of precision and rules in any case lies at the base of the Chinese kuei."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 226) 

After pointing out the demonic nature of modern emblems of order and commerce Fallon drops a reference to David Icke when he commands "Surrender run headlong into the void/The reptile's among us!" to end the second verse. From their "Oh, Isabella" cycles back to the chorus and begins the third verse, which is easily the most mystical:

 Chained to the oxcart
With a chest full of arrows
The villagers are burdened with cedar
 By back and by barrow
 Scrub brush from the wasteland
 Snake in a tree
 Remember when they throw the torches in
 Breathe breathe breathe  
The opening four lines invoke war and tyranny. Historically slaves were changed to oxcarts, which were at times used in the ancient world to bring arrows to armies in the midst of battle. In antiquity cedar was used to make ships as well as statues of various deities. It was also famously used during Solomon's reign for woodwork in the Temple of Jerusalem which leads me to believe that the conquest of Jerusalem (which was managed by Solomon's predecessor, King David) is what is being referenced here. "Scrub brush from the wasteland" may be a jab at the burning bush mythos while "snake in a tree" is almost surely a reference to the fall of man.

As for the final two lines, human sacrifice by immolation likely occurred in numerous ancient cultures such as those of the Phoenicians, Babylonians and Celts while it was most definitely practiced in medieval Europe via various witch burnings. I suspect the latter is what is being referenced here. Interestingly, there is some evidence to indicate that European witch cults preserved several shamanistic traditions (as filtered through the mystery cults of the Mediterranean), such as the ritualistic use of psychedelic mushrooms, into nearly the modern era.
"Dionysus's Centaurs, Satyrs and Maenads, it seems, ritually ate a spotted toadstool called 'flycap' (amanita muscaria), which gave them enormous muscular strength, erotic power, delirious visions, and the gift of prophecy. Partakers in the Eleusinian, Orphic and other mysteries may also have known the panaeolus papilionaceus, a small dung-mushroom still used by Portuguese witches, and similar in effect to mescaline."
(The White Goddess, Robert Graves, pg. 45) 

From there the song cycles back into the chorus for two more go rounds before its glorious conclusion. Thematically this brings side B full circle with opener "The Face," which chronicles the persecution of a modern shamanistic-like culture (rock 'n roll), serving as an effective book end with this chronicle of olden day shamanistic persecution. And like "The Face," the conclusion of "Oh, Isabella" also fantasizes about the coming end of the present order.
The album concludes with "The Wolf Man Kindly Requests...", which is most appropriate as werewolves mythos have  overt shamanistic origins.
"There were several entheogens associated with Apollo and Artemis's archery. The Dirke drug, Datura, was one of them. Another was wolfsbane (or aconite), which was named for the same metaphor in Greek: the 'bane caused by the wolf,' lykoktonon. This is the toxin that involves the twins in the traditions of the werewolf...
"The metaphoric effect of wolfsbane in classical myth is that it supposedly induces a maenadic regression to the pre-Olympian world (when primordial 'wolfmen' like Lykaon or Lykourgos (Lycurgus), or the Theban Lycos opposed the advent of the newer gods): in particular, wolfsbane causes the madness of rabies (called lyssa or 'she-wolf'). Lyssa makes the hunter's tame dog refevert to its primitive ancestor as a wolf, turning upon its own master. That is to say, wolfsbane is a recidivist agent, causing the world to regress to the primordial age."
(The World of Classical Myth, Carl A.P. Ruck & Danny Staples, pg. 100)

Thus, werewolves have not only an association with entheogens, but also with the primordial world in which the shaman thrived. And indeed, "Wolf Man..." is all about casting off polite society. Riding the back of a woozy Tim Sult riff, Fallon definitely rejects mainstream preoccupations, i.e.: "You want to know my political persuasion?/Well sugar I howl at the moon can you dig it?" and "Some people say my mind is a ghetto/Obviously they been gentrified/Gentrified and I got no time for that!" It all comes together with the chorus, where he proclaims: "Party's over you all got to go/The wolf man is coming out!/The sooner the better/The wolf man is coming out!" Indeed, the song ends with an extended refrain hailing the wolf man's return, as fitting a close to the album as could be.

And it is here I shall wrap things up. Earth Rocker is an absolutely illuminating account of the world today, with the political cynicism of side A perfectly balancing the spiritual longings of side B, finally concluding with visions of the shaman, in the guise of the wolf man, stepping out once again. It is also a fitting narrative of rock 'n roll's almost phoenix-like return again and again, from its shamanistic origins to it transference to the ancient Mystery traditions, its underground preservation in the witch cults of Medieval Europe (as well in the Americas) and it's finally rebirth as the modern day rock 'n roll phenomenon. What's more, Earth Rocker (and any number of other classic albums that have emerged since the malaise of the early 00s) is further proof of rock's survivability (and possibly its glorious rebirth in the digital age) after largely being cast aside by the music industry after grunge went into decline (with the exception of the abomination that was nu metal).

Earth Rocker perfectly balances these heady themes while capturing the primal rawness the best rock  'n' roll almost  always possesses, making for both a headbanging as well as an illuminating experience.


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