Maps of Meaning – Clutch’s New American Mythology

Here’s a hot take for you: Clutch are an underrated band. It’s hot because Clutch is an extremely popular band; their career spans fourteen full-length releases and a

3 years ago

Here’s a hot take for you: Clutch are an underrated band. It’s hot because Clutch is an extremely popular band; their career spans fourteen full-length releases and a plethora of EPs, rarities, collections, and so on. They also jam-pack every single show they played in the Before Times and are widely celebrated online. And yet, Clutch has garnered for itself a name of a fun, raucous band, with the adjective “dad rock” being thrown around (a fact that vocalist Neil Fallon has recently, and hilariously, owned). To be sure, they are those facts and then some: Clutch’s music is some of the grooviest and most irreverent stuff out there and has been for literally more than two decades at this point. But alongside, Clutch are also known for having great lyrics, ranging from everything between religion, economics, politics, ecology, mythological creatures, literary references, legends, Americana and much more.

So why do I say they are underrated if fans are familiar and cognizant of their more “serious” side? I do it because I think there’s actually a grander narrative that runs as a thread through Clutch’s work that I haven’t seen discussed almost at all and that’s their attempt to create an American mythology. I’ll explain: America is a weird country because it’s one of the first countries to be founded “ad-hoc”. That is, the United States of America, and the Thirteen Colonies before it, are one of the first examples of colonization at scale, of a people leaving where they grew up, where their families are from, where their culture and histories are, and going to not just start an economic concern or a military base but a whole nation overseas. Much suffering and brutality came from that decision (or, to be accurate, series of decisions over a century or so) but be that as it may, a nation was still founded. And that nation has no history and no mythology of its own, exactly because it did not originate from out of an organic milieu of culture, history, folk-tales, and traditions.

To be sure, America has Christianity and the religion underpins many of the cultural and social mores of the country. But ever since the first flourishing of the American state, there have been efforts to create something more local, more unique to the American people, a series of myths and stories that they can share. You see, this is an inseparable part of human existence, the need for archetypes, for stories to tell children as cautionary tales, for monsters and heroes to populate what can otherwise seem to be a very cold and uncaring world. As Theodore Adorno put it in his seminal (and under-read) essay The Stars Down to Earth, the world seems like a cold and uncaring place unless it is populated by systems of magic and wonder. Interestingly enough, Adorno also linked this type of thinking to something which I think is only now showing its full potential for harm: conspiracy theories and, specifically, the anti-Semitic tropes which underpin most (if not all) of them. That desire to see connections where they aren’t, to imagine a world that isn’t just run by people in power as they step on our necks, forever, can be turbocharged by societal unrest, economic conditions, skewed education and more to become conspiracy theories which can motivate people to harm others.

To put a finer point on it, we all feel alienated by the world we see around us and that alienation mounts the more we progress down capitalism; thus, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that interest in the occult, the New Age, and the plain Weird spiked in the period from the 60’s to the 80’s in America, just as The Great Society was being dismantled by Reaganism. Interestingly enough, this also coincided with the rise of metal, with the UK under-going similar but different processes under Thatcherism, a genre of music explicitly tied to the occult. As we spiraled further and further into these disastrous economic movements, people started feeling more and more desperate for some connection, for a way to make sn

OK, but we’ve already written the “metal and the occult” deep dive, several times actually, so let’s get back on track here: all of the above was to position Clutch as part of this desire to create a mythology, a magical system, for America. In true American fashion, Clutch’s mythology revolves around the interlinking and overlapping circles of nature, industry, and religious belief. As we’ve explored elsewhere, at least two of these topics (those of nature and religion) are closely interlinked in American culture and it’s not hard to see how industry (or technology or science, as we might want to call it), as a tool which humans use to change nature, fits into this equation. Taken together, these spheres of influence in Clutch’s music creates a classic image of America as a nation always on the verge of change and weird change at that. The borders between what’s real and what’s unreal are assaulted not “just” by weird creatures, but also by powerful belief and by reality-changing advances in technology and science.

Clutch’s attitude to these changes is also very typical: it’s a mixture of adoration for the raw power of the forces at hand spliced with a healthy suspicion of it at the same time. Mythical creatures are wondrously beautiful but they are also intrinsically dangerous. They can stand in as a metaphor for all of the wondrous things in our lives but also their danger. Technology, industry, and science all bring us marvelous adventures and contrivances but also break down the fabric of our lives and take us to places we might not wish to go. And lastly, religion holds great promise, for salvation and redemption, but can also be used to sway people into doing wrong, as pawns for powerful elites. For the rest of this essay, I would like to dive into each one of these spheres and, through analysis of lyrics mostly but also of music, take a look at how these different perspectives work within it and how they all coalesce together into what might be called “a mythology”.

It should also be said explicitly before we get started: Clutch are not a band that is critical of the US’s very existence but rather of the current state of things within it (although they do have many politically charged tracks) and so that perspective will be missing from this essay. There is definitely a lot to be said on this subject, however, and we should remember that American myths often appropriate, if not downright erase, the myths of indigenous people who lived there before the colonizers. It could be an interesting follow up to interrogate the relationship between those myths/cultures and Clutch’s work but for this essay, we will focus on Clutch’s own mythology.

One last note: I will be drawing from Clutch’s music across their career. There’s definitely grounds for a chronologically oriented exploration of this topic, that looks at how Clutch’s views and uses of mythology have evolved and changed over time, but it will be absent from this essay.

Let’s get to work.

Circus Maximus – Clutch’s Weird and Wonderous Menagerie

The easiest element of Clutch’s work with mythology to grasp is their predilection for telling stories about mythic and wondrous creatures. From the very beginning of their career and all the way up to their last few albums, Clutch’s music is replete with these beings: the kraken, the minotaur, the yeti, undead of various types, anthropomorphic animals, and more monsters besides populate very nook and cranny of their discography. It’s pretty easy to answer the question of why, at least on the surface of it: these monsters are cool. Stories of these monsters, some of them by the same name as used by Clutch, have been told through Western culture for literally millennia, in the case of creatures of Greek myth. These stories are well fleshed out and thus offer a rich base from which to draw inspiration when writing lyrics. This also means that these stories will be familiar to the listener, quickly forging a connection with them.

Clutch are more than happy to play to these tropes and “simply” revel in the cool aesthetics of monsters and beasts. There is perhaps no better example of this than one of Clutch’s best tracks, “Circus Maximus” from the underrated Robot Hive/Exodus. The track describes what its name might imply: a circus. This circus is an old-fashioned one, straight out of the twilight years of the 20th century, in between the First World War and the second, where curiosities, snakeoil salesmen, and other forms of charlatans travelled the land. Or, at least, that’s how the story goes, what the ingrained image of the time in our culture has become (see the excellent show Carnival for an example). True to this imagination, the track is populated by any number of fantastical beasts (and patrons), beguiling the circus goers with their traits, states, and general tribulations. The lyrics describing all of this are so good that I’m just going to paste them all below. Enjoy:

Will you be entertained by beast and knives?
Vital mentalisms will blow your minds!
Cthulu’s red headed step child, quite the precocious babe
We like to keep it on the D.L. because our clientele prefers it that way
The seven legged sow will see to the after-show
Don’t you think the candelabra gives a pleasant glow?

Now may I present to you the basilisk?
Please dawn your goggles if you wish to resist
From the fiery depths of the planet’s core
The never sleeping for want of eating unholy stench of the manticore

Please produce your access pass, no photographs please
Some of our guests are…how shall I say? Hyperbolic V.I.P
There is a velvet room for the discriminating pack
Celebrities and tentacles regard the beast with two backs.

The seven legged sow will see to the after-show
Don’t you think the candelabra gives a pleasant glow?

Paparazzi! World wide video debut!
Paparazzi! World wide video debut!
Paparazzi! World wide video debut!
Paparazzi! World wide video debut!

And just when you thought it could get no stranger
May I present the semblance of a Scandanavian doppelganger
From the frozen depths of a forgotten fjord
The never sleeping for want of eating unholy stench of the manticore

If we look further than the obviously attractive, aesthetic traits of monster stories, we can start to see how these tales of mythic creatures fits into Clutch’s overall narrative of American mythology. Consider Clutch’s “Minotaur”, from their excellent Strange Cousins From the West. In it, Clutch use the minotaur’s labyrinth as a metaphor for the city and, more than just a city, the bustling, industrious city. The minotaur at its center is the very bustle of commerce and industry as it bellows for more and more things and people to consume. This will fit in with our discussion of progress and science further down the essay but fits in pretty well with what we have to say right now. Clutch take a being of mythological origin and adapt it to shine a light on current American society, a society which famously contains the most bustling, noisiest, and dirtiest of the megapolises more of us are finding ourselves living in today.

That last part, which ties American culture to the rest of the world by means of how much of it is exported outside the US, is probably what is hinted at with the album’s title, which also appears in “Minotaur” itself:

Unexpected circumstance
We must not delay
You have all been so very very kind to us
And we will return the favor one day
Fate is the idiot’s excuse!
Freedom is the sucker’s dream!
But we hope you find some measure of comfort
In considering us to be your family

Strange cousins from the west overstay their welcome
Peculiar manner and strange dress
Who will ever dare to tell them?

The city’s always thriving
Hungry bellows of the Minotaur
Everyday more are arriving
And everyday it requires more

“Fate is the idiot’s excuse! / Freedom is the sucker’s dream!” is such a good line. Taken together with the turn of phrase “strange cousins from the west overstay their welcome”, we can see how it translates into a critique of the spread of American culture over the world. American culture is weird and promises false hopes, stories of manifest destiny and “liberty for all”. When traced back to its origin, the labyrinth/the city is a “city of crooked alleys /
Crookeder women and wicked men”. The myth comes full circle when you consider what lessons the original tale of Theseus and the Minotaur teaches us, lessons of greed, boastful arrogance, and cruelty. You can start to see how Clutch “weaponize” these tales for modern times, turning their sharp, millennia-honed blade on our own lives and political realities.

This, of course, leads us very well to Clutch’s handling of science gone wrong, the potential and doom of technology, and how they tie all of these themes to their wider critique of modern living and the American society. So that’s where we’ll go next, looking into the fantastical science/science fiction of Clutch’s lyrics.

Further listening: “The Yeti” // “Banshee” // “Release the Kraken”

Our Lady of Electric Light – Clutch and the American Technological Dream

You can’t really talk about American culture, and certainly not critique it, without talking about industry. And you can’t talk about industry, especially not American industry, without talking about science, innovation, and the idea of the genius inventor. This is probably due to the fact that America’s claim to fame, what first placed it squarely on the international field was not its revolution (although that was important enough) but it’s mass and speedy industrialization during the 19th century. It’s not a coincidence that the 19th century saw massive expansion and wealth flowing out from and into America; the state is nearly synonymous with the Industrial Revolution, just as much as its once home country of England is.

When you think of America, up to and including most of the 20th century, you think of railroads, factories, gold rushes, electricity, and then, later on, the Space Race (which it lost, no matter what propaganda they try and sell you). But you also think of desolate highways that stretch forever, grey urban wastelands, pollution, power grids, and other malaises of industrialization and modernization. This, of course, stands in contrast to the fantastical creatures from the previous section, being as they are creatures of natural primacy and unbridled, ur-potential. In the last part of this essay we’ll look into how the fusion of both of these ideas, sprinkled with a dash of religiosity, forms the connection between Clutch and the American psyche. But for now, let us delay on how Clutch understand and conceptualize the more internal duality that makes up the ideas of industrialization and modernity in our culture.

In Clutch’s handling of science and progress, we can see a continuance of the same critique they used mythical creatures to express, this time channeled through a focus on the underbelly of progress. Some tracks “merely” continue the urban theme seen in tracks like “Minotaur”, decrying the waste and despair of urban life, like “The Amazing Kreskin”, which has these incredible lyrics:

In the raining park the chessmen play
The faithful atheists refuse to pray
The steam-works weep, the addicts do not care
Crowd of cold people stand by and stare

The garbage eaters, their many retainers
Come to collect all the foul remainders
The smoke hangs heavy, the wrecking ball swings
In the clockwork of a collapsing thing

Wasted plastic empire’s golden age, chemical wedding
Citizens in their refineries cheer the nuptial bedding
The hourglass is turning turning turning turning turning

But this sub-genre of Clutch’s lyrics also goes further than that: it critiques the control that technology and, more specifically, hyper-fast communication has garnered the powers that be. In Clutch’s view, all across their career by the way, from “Escape From the Prison Planet” all the way to “50,000 Unstoppable Watts”, science and technology give more to those who rule us than they do to us. Sure, there’s some measure of greater comfort and freedom to be found in modern contrivances; no one wants to walk to a well ten times a day just to get fresh water. But any technology we use today, like smartphones or the internet, is used fifty over (and faster) to also surveil, monitor, and catalog us. In “50,000 Unstoppable Watts”, Clutch go further, drawing a picture of how this control stifles our creativity by fencing us in into the hyper-focused view of shadowy organizations:

Airstreams tethered together like silver sleeping oxen
All the best locations are located on the margins
Suited for telescoping the interstellar scene
It’s a mean killer in the daylight, but that’s life for you and me
It’s a reliable source of information
Fifty thousand unstoppable watts
Anthrax, ham radio, and liquor

What if I told you they been lying
About that double wide with water rights?
And now the town cars are back again!
They sold you some old line
About the greater good and sacrifice
Your friends from Langley are back again!
It’s a reliable source of information
Fifty thousand unstoppable watts

Remember how we said that the belief in a fantastical bleeds over into conspiracy theories, since the gist of both milieus is a magical world where things are interconnected and effectual? Here we can see it come to life in front of our eyes, as Clutch swim seamlessly (the above quoted lyrics from the same album as “Minotaur”) between the fantastical, the clandestine, and the outright conspiratorial. Which is not to say they are wrong; I wholeheartedly agree with the critique that the same webs (be they the Internet, telephones, railroads, or any other form of network) only seem like they are geared towards us but instead serve those who control us. I am only pointing out these links because they give us a deeper understanding of where Clutch are coming for and, as I’ve been arguing from the outset of this essay, how they attempt to repaint the world with the fantastical, be it scientific or otherwise.

This is also a good place to bring up one of Clutch’s best, and weirdest, tracks, both from a musical and a lyrics perspective. This is, as any fan might know, “Brazenhead”. Appearing on the wildly celebrated Pure Rock Fury (often cited as the band’s best album), this track features some truly odd lyrics about what appears to be the birth of an AI. This isn’t the last time that Clutch will look at the concept of sentient automatons; one of Robot Hive/Exodus‘s best track is “10001110101” (binary code which famously doesn’t mean anything, which is ironic given the lyrics of “Brazenhead”, which we’ll get into in a second) deals with the potential of science, AI, and robots. Going back to “Brazenhead” though, just read these lyrics please:

The kaleidoscope program
Is functioning so beautifully
Fire up all the primary engines
Calculate projected nexus

Take a good plane and shave off all the edges
Not straight enough to make a perfect structure. Indigenous
Life must be in agreement
Like one, meaning some, and zero meaning nothing

Continue stretching the edge of rondure
While maintaining geodesic stasis
Anomaly detected
No previous known cases

Take a good plane and shave off all the edges
Not straight enough to make a perfect structure. Indigenous
Life must be in agreement
Like one, meaning some, and zero meaning nothing

Colossal liquid insect
With legs the size of rockets
Analyze its orgone levels
Switch view to kaleidoscopic

Take a good plane and shave off all the edges
Not straight enough to make a perfect structure. Indigenous
Life must be in agreement
Like one, meaning some, and zero meaning nothing

Yep, cool, sure “colossal liquid insect”, that’s totally fine. If we’re being serious for a second here, this track is another example of how the technological and the fantastical merge (or at least seem to originate from the same point) in Clutch’s work. Technology, much like for a certain famous science fiction author, seems to be indistinguishable from magic. You can also hear this on “Brazenhead”‘s music; it’s a powerful and impactful track, all groove and expressive vocals. This isn’t exactly an aberration; on the contrary, it fits exactly into the what we said at the start of essay about the ambiguous relationship that Clutch as to many of these subjects. While “Brazenhead” depicts technology in a somewhat less negative light than the other examples we’ve cited, it also focuses on building it up to that status of a magical thing, something beyond our senses. That also means that it holds a dangerous power over us, wielded by elites to control us while we wallow and wilt in the waste which technology creates. This is how the fantastical and the technological twist together in Clutch’s work and how both aspects of their writing comes to critique American and American culture.

At this point, you’ll naturally ask whether Clutch have an antidote to all of this or a suggestion of how to differently live our lives. And you would be entirely correct; this is the topic of the last part of the essay, to which we’ll now turn our attention. You see, something that I think a lot of people miss is that Clutch is a very religious, or at the very least spiritual, band. They’re just not religious in the sense that evangelical, American Christianity might see it. They don’t confuse the American state for the Church, don’t feel the need to speak in tongues or be incredibly bigoted. Instead, Clutch’s religiosity actually goes back to something that is key to understanding the American psyche: the church of the heart.

Further listening: “Our Lady Of Electric Light” // “10001110101” // “Spacegrass”

Basket Of Eggs – Myth and the American Psyche

OK, this is the segment of the essay where I write “I wish I had the space to fully go into this subject, but I don’t”. This is because we are now getting to the part where we analyze Clutch’s antidote to the ills of modern living that their use of myth and science has been describing above. After all, what is the point of a mythology if there isn’t a moral lesson to be learned from it? The whole idea of mythologies is that they use stories to tell us subtle and foundational truths about not only our lives as they are but our lives as they ought to be. Therefore, here at the outset, we would expect Clutch to tie up their mythology, after it has shown us the beautiful things we should be wary of, to show us the beautiful thing we should be working towards keeping pure. And, indeed, that is exactly what we find in the form of Clutch’s religiosity and spirituality.

Now, in the paragraph which closed off the previous part of this essay, I drew a contrast between what many think when they think of Christianity in the United States (namely huge megachurches, intolerant bigots, and hyper-patriotic and commercialized belief) but the fact is that the blight currently manifesting as “evangelical Christianity” is a relatively new affair in the States. To be sure, it has its roots in what I’m about to describe, and even shares a name with it, but many of the popular preachers and believers in America would be shocked and appalled at the current state of mainstream Christianity in America (as, indeed, many of their contemporary followers are). This is also not to say that evangelical Christianity is the only strain of Christianity in America. However, as notoriously hard as these these things are to verify, evangelical Christianity is still the biggest segment of Christians.

But here’s the thing: what we now call evangelical Christianity has nothing to do with what the 18th, the 19th and, indeed, most of the 20th century called evangelical Christianity. At the time of the First Great Awakening, which started in the early stages of the 19th century, evangelical Christianity was associated not with conservative patriots and certainly not with bigots, but with radicals who sparked a return to Christianity motivated by ideals of freedom, abolitionism, wealth redistribution, and personal spiritualism. This movement, and this is where we run out of space (although this topic is fascinating) had its roots all the way back in the religious nature of the people who founded the Colonies and ended up immigrating to them, namely Puritans, Diggers, Quakers, Levellers and other “Independents” (as they were then known). Some of these movements are today recognized as proto-socialists and preached teachings that today would put them down the sights of many evangelical Christians.

In addition to all of these social value, the original evangelical Christians also preached a form of highly independent (hence their name) Christianity, where the connection with Jesus and the Scripture was a personal affair, unmediated as much as possible by priests. Remember, these were Protestants but they went one further: the Great Awakening was an antidote to what many started seeing as a lackluster Church, where people were reciting prayers by rote, even in Protestant circles. As a response, evangelical preachers started formulating a different kind of belief: one which went through the heart (there we go), through emotions of love, passion, pain, hope, and even desire. They envisioned a religion which was personal but deeply connected to ideas of doing right and of community. As we’ve explored elsewhere (yes, I’m sending you to this article for a second time), these ideas were also deeply connected to nature, as they intermingled with other ideas found in the American cultural milieu.

And what do you know, this is exactly the same sort of spirituality that we find in Clutch’s work! Firstly, we can look at some of the more explicitly religious tracks in Clutch’s career and find these ideas all over them. Take “Ship of Gold” for example. This is one of Clutch’s “thickest” songs; I’ve always found its groove and its guitar tones completely irresistible. Beyond that, the track is all about personal salvation, imagining the just reward of the true believer. Importantly, it goes so in terms of original, American evangelical Christianity: the individual believer is being transported to Heaven here, with his own personal revelation and visitation. Besides, check out these lyrics:

Beyond that mountain there
I see a City on the Hill
Its gates are open wide
I hear the ringing bells
Look over yonder there
On toward the burying ground
Poor boy’s all afire
Poor boy’s dead and gone
Oh, poor boy’s dead and gone

One of these days
The Ship of Gold
Will carry me
To my reward
Out of this world
It will take me
To hear the horns of Jubilee

This all screams of the church of the heart. First of all, the “City on the Hill” is an incredibly central image to the American religious experience; it was the sort of imagery of the Promised Land that was used, again and again, to describe the new state on the American continent and the moral promise which it represented for the believers of evangelical Christianity. If that’s not enough, the person in question here is not some saint being ushered to God’s side, it’s a “poor boy”. They’re poor because they’re dead of course but they’re also just plain poor; simple and poor. And lastly, we see featured “the horns of Jubilee”, a Millenarian image very common in the chiliastic evangelical movement (oh boy, we really don’t have space to go into that, just trust me here).

Interestingly enough, the idea of Jubilee also features in the second track I wanted to bring up as an example here: “White’s Ferry”. This is my all time favorite Clutch track, mostly for its indescribable melancholy and beautiful imagery. It’s also a perfect example here, and the one with which I’ll close this essay, because it perfectly portrays the mix of ideas that we spent this entire essay describing. First, there is the undeniable presence of nature on the track: it descries moss, forest leaves, ivy, soil, and more. But it also contrasts modern living with the hard work of a forgotten age, with a purer connection to the land. It also ties these ideas into the fantastical and the mythical by including the figure of the ferry-man, the psychopomp that takes you to the realm of the Dead.

Lastly, these ideas are contextualized not only in the terms of a story but of a moral tale, a religious tale: the track heavily hints that the only form of morality and religion that is to be trusted is that of the moss and of the leaves. Proper living, good living, is one lived in nature, in a simpler way of life. This is not just a nostalgic yearning for days gone by but an insistence on what has been lost, on a personal connection to the world around us and, through that, to God (“divinity vanishes among the leaves”) that, in our massive, noisy cities, now escapes us. It is the morality which ties all of this into myth, which makes Clutch’s great, career-spanning, decades-spanning lyrical project more than “just” a good story being told. It makes it a mythology, one uniquely tailored to the American psyche and situation, to America’s history, and fascination with the mythological.

Without further ado, I give you one of the best tracks ever written and recorded, “White’s Ferry”. As you listen, try to take in everything we’ve explored here. Try to listen to the track as the last chapter of a myth (even if chronologically it is nothing of the sort, as Clutch’s career is still ongoing), as the choir summarizing what we have learned, as the storyteller hanging their head and telling us the moral behind the literary veil. See how the track invokes a personal sort of spiritual experience and how this experience runs through the other tracks we’ve given as examples during this essay. Enjoy.

Only the dirt I do believe
As memory vanishes among the leaves

Wizard of tickets is always glad to charge a pilgrim’s fare
Jubilee’s generally early. Let’s take the country air
Mistreating granite, limestone, and clay. It’s a shameful soil
But all grows well on the floodplain tract if you can afford the toil

Cradled in ivy, we will allow
The moss to prosper upon our brows

Boxer rebellion, the Holy Child. They all pay their rent
But none together can testify to rhythm of a road well bent
Saddles and zip codes, passports and gates, the Jones’ keep
In August the water is trickling, in April it’s furious deep

Wizard of tickets is always glad to charge a pilgrim’s fare
Jubilee’s generally early. Let’s take the country air
Mistreating granite, limestone, and clay. It’s a shameful soil
But all grows well on the floodplain tract if you can afford the toil

Only the dirt I do believe
Divinity vanishes among the leaves

Further listening: “Basket Of Eggs” //  “Immortal” // “Drink to the Dead” // “Cypress Grove” // “(Notes From The Trial Of) La Curandera” // “Burning Beard”

Eden Kupermintz

Published 3 years ago