“Why don’t you just start at the beginning…”
The first time I put Clutch’s Psychic Warfare in the CD player of my 2008 Pontiac G6, I actually had to restart the first track. “Affidavit” is a 25-second lead-in to the band’s 11th studio album that sounds like the scene in the movie when the private investigator finally sits down with the paranoid witness in the darkest corner of a bar to get the needed testimony to put away the mass murderer. I had the volume too low and almost missed it.
I know. “Too low.” What can I say? I’m getting older.
The next track and the album’s first song, “X-Ray Visions,” only serves to exacerbate the imagery of a chain-smoking narrator awaiting his orders while testifying to the existence of “psychic warfare” and “telekinetic dynamite.” It speaks to his paranoia, as he taps out messages to high command in Morse code, “With a wooden nickel on the receiver of a phone.” Why? Only he knows. It’s singer Neil Fallon’s sci-fi storytelling at its finest. Think back to “Escape From the Prison Planet” from the band’s 1995 self-titled album for an idea of what I’m getting at.
It’s like if Bob Dylan wrote “Talkin’ World War III Blues” with the voices in Tom Waits’ head.
X-Ray’s gargantuan riffs segue immediately into “Firebirds!,” which seems to continue the narrator’s tale. The paranoia is gone, however, and our protagonist is on the run from something…or someone? He picks up a woman in dire need of some otherworldly weaponry, which he assures her that he can provide. With a nod to Hunter S. Thompson — “Outside of Barstow…” — this song doesn’t really move along any kind of sensible plot. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t groove, however.
Next, we get to “A Quick Death in Texas,” and this is where I get a bit lost. The story bears no connection to the last two tracks and completely jumps to a brand new experience in a brand new location with a brand new narrator. Nothing is clicking for me. What happened? What became of our wooden-nickel-tapping hero?
The way the album begins and (spoiler alert) ends with speaking parts from our friend the investigator would normally scream CONCEPT ALBUM. But that isn’t the case with Psychic Warfare. As I went through the album, each song — “Sucker for the Witch,” “Your Love is Incarceration,” “Doom Saloon,” “Our Lady of Electric Light” — prove to be great narratives individually, but I couldn’t find a common thread to link all of them.
Maybe there isn’t one after all. Maybe there is. In my college years, this would have been a conversation best had with other like-minded friends over a game of Risk and a bottle of good Kentucky bourbon.
So, it isn’t a concept album. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be. Strictly from a writer’s standpoint, this album is a dream. Especially with the aforementioned “Sucker for the Witch” track, when Fallon breaks down the fourth wall to talk about his difficulty writing tunes about women. The lyrics throughout Psychic Warfare are just the right blend of sci-fi geek and smart ass; gin-inspired fiction and genuine honesty. If you like fun stories and slick turns-of-phrase, this is definitely the album for you.
And of course, the music grooves with the steadfast chemistry that we’ve come to expect from Clutch. The stomping rhythm section of Dan Maines and Jean-Paul Gaster build another sturdy foundation for Tim Sult to pepper with thoughtfully chaotic metal riffs. Make no mistake, this is definitely a metal album. It’s something the guys from Maryland seem to have been getting back to since Earth Rocker, which was a much heavier departure from the blues-influenced Strange Cousins from the West and From Beale Street to Oblivion. When Psychic Warfare came to an end, I found myself with the quandary of which song I would prefer for my entrance music as a professional wrestler.
It rocks, is what I’m getting at. But of course it does. It’s Clutch. But, is it as good as the band’s last three, four, or five studio releases?
Certainly it seems to be. When Psychic Warfare released on Oct. 24, 2015, it debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 (Clutch’s best showing thus far), topped Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart for the first time, and the Hard Rock Albums chart for the second time.
In all honesty, Psychic Warfare doesn’t seem to have the memorable, stick-in-the-back-of-your-mind songs that previous albums have had. While it may not reach ‘Arc of the Covenant’ levels of rock praise and adoration, like Blast Tyrant or Elephant Riders, it is most definitely a fantastic collection of Clutch songs that displays the depth and breadth of the band’s musicianship and creativity. It’s like someone said, “Hey, Jam Room was awesome. Let’s put some serious production money behind that.”
While the album shakes your speakers with the punchy groove and lyrical command that has been the band’s calling card over the past 25 years, I get a sense of growth and evolution that makes it one of the most honest albums I’ve heard from them in a long while. That’s up for debate, of course. Anybody have a bottle of Woodford Reserve and some chat time?