Monday, September 22, 2008

DVD Review: Clutch - Full Fathom Five: Video Field Recordings

Yes, I know it's been a long time since I last posted here - a bit of laziness on my part. But this review (and DVD) is well worth checking out.

Since 1991, Maryland metal and “stoner rock” band Clutch has built a loyal, nationwide following that dubs themselves “gearheads,” and played sold-out shows in prestigious clubs and arenas throughout the country for years. Thus, they are known as a great live band, and relentless touring is how they built and continue to build on their fan base. But not until this year did Clutch decide to release an official live DVD. In August, at long last, the DVD Full Fathom Five: Video Field Recordings hit stores. It’s a self-released DVD on a new label created by the band, Weathermaker Music, through which all future albums will be released. [Its companion CD Full Fathom Five: Audio Field Recordings was released this week]

Directed and produced by Agent Ogden, this 95-minute DVD compiles performances from five Clutch shows, four from 2007 stops and one from early 2008. And upon first impression, this criminally underrated hard rock band couldn’t be in better form live, and the 20-song set – five more than the CD version – will surely satisfy most fans.

The chosen tracklist for this DVD is culled from a majority of their albums, but draws most heavily from three releases: the mightily acclaimed self-titled, stoner rockin’ 1995 full-length (five tracks), 1998’s hard rock/metal Elephant Riders CD (five tracks) and the band’s most recent output, 2007’s ballsy, bluesy and hard rockin’ From Beale Street To Oblivion (six tracks). Some fans may fret there’s no material from their earliest releases (the 1991 Pitchfork EP and 1993 debut Transnational Speedway League) here, but Clutch doesn’t play many songs from that era nowadays. As of late, they alternate between mixing old favorites with more recent jam-rock material one night, then cut down their jam-ready material a bit for a more heavy set the next show. On this live DVD, you get the best of both types of shows.

The heaviest material (in Drop-D tuning) comes first, starting with the Soundgarden-meets-Toolish “Dragonfly,” a somewhat long alternative metal tune from 1998 that segues right into the similar-sounding “Child of the City,” from last year’s riff-tastic Beale Street CD. From there, the liveliness of the DVD picks up quickly, with another newer track, “Devil & Me,” a kickass bluesy southern rock-styled rocker that also features some slick, Aerosmith-styled guitar and bass licks that guitar aficionados would love. Other standouts include fan favorites like “10001110101” and “Big News I,” both of which feature a Deep Purple-ish organ melody supplied by Mick Schauer, and bluesy harp soloing by guest Eric Oblander (on “Big News I” and “Big News II”).

Other memorable moments include the political-minded and lyrically amusing “Mob Goes Wild,” where singer Neil Fallon rails about the government’s handling of the war dead and encourages the masses to “move to Canada,” “bum rush the border guard,” and “smoke lots of pot.”

Speaking of bands that rock guitarists and magazines just love and worship, I just have to say this: Clutch is a band who has and continues to get comparisons to influential classic and modern rock groups as varied as Led Zeppelin, Faith No More, Kyuss, and Black Sabbath. It is amazing, but also sad that a consistently solid and hardworking band such as Clutch has gotten ignored by the mainstream hard rock/metal community for much of their career, even if they don’t care for exposure on MTV and modern rock radio, where they had little commercial success in the ‘90s.

Clutch, led by guitarist Tim Sult have over 15 years worth of great guitar songs that the Guitar World tablature writers and Rolling Stone magazines of the world would be all over in a perfect world, songs (on the DVD) such as “Mob Goes Wild,” “10001110101” “You Can’t Stop Progress,” and “Devil & Me,” to name a few. But I digress.

As the DVD played on, you were only reminded by the interludes that these performances were taken from different shows (Pittsburgh, Australia, Colorado, and New Jersey); its production and visual presentation had a level of consistency to it that made you feel like you were watching one show. The only real negative concerning production is that although the lighting above the stage was colorful – it included some cool black and white flashes – it got dim at times when the energy of the show was still in high gear. The occasional split-screen action of the band members was another plus.

Performance-wise, the band was tight every which way. However, singer Neil Fallon’s wide-ranging three-octave vocals, from gruff-sounding, low-key ZZ Top-style verses to high-range choruses are impressive, but get off-key during parts of a few songs (i.e. “Ship of Gold,” “Promoter (of Earthbound Causes)”. Still, Fallon demands a lot of himself vocally and pulls it off most of the time. Besides, those relatively few sour notes won’t stand out to the average listener.

Full Fathom Five, Video Field Recordings shouldn’t serve as an introduction to Clutch, but as a celebration and reward to any true fan, especially all those who stayed loyal to the band for a decade and a half and through the coming and going of many trends since they started out. Clutch has gone through stylistic changes themselves, having added a bluesier feel and organist to their classic rock-ish and stoner rock sound, along with more jam-heavy material in their concerts. Sure, they aren’t as angry and heavy metal as they were 17 years ago, but its hard rock/borderline metal of recent years is as enjoyable to listen to as it’s ever been. And I would argue that Clutch, as a result is as great a rock band as they’ve ever been. And Full Fathom Five captures the band arguably at the top of its game.

Note: This review was first posted on 9/14/08.