The Black Clouds have always inhabited their own dark and stormy sector. Hailing influential thunder from the early ‘90s, The Black Clouds embrace the still fresh and tumultuous days of the West Coast sound, a sound that resulted in the extinction of the metal pop dinosaurs of the ‘80s. Comprised of guitarists/vocalists Dan Matthews and Rob Blake, bassist Gary Moses and drummer Cory King, The Black Clouds have returned leaner and louder with their latest release, Better Days.
Rob Blake had always been a standout musician even before I made his acquaintance back in 2005. Rambunctious and Keith Moon insane, my late night forays and adventures with this real McCoy are best described as unforgettable and unprintable. His teaming up with compositional equal Dan Matthews has added an element of passionate urgency that has put this group’s songwriting way over the top of anything even close in the same interpretational genre.
Better Days is The Black Clouds’ third release, and it demonstrates a band that has found its own strong voice when it comes to stage and studio. This is no mere three-chord slamfest. The songs fan out in separate directions like fledglings from a nest. Flanking the raw and rowdy theme of “all or nothing” and wandering into wide, hypnotic patterns of pentatonic fury, they all leave indelible impressions before reuniting with a lethal continuity that feels seamless on this beast of a CD.
The disc starts off with “Prelude” and opens the door to better days indeed. Melodic guitar lines weave majestic and stately announcement between bass and drum swings before dissonance tumbles this piece down into the Peter Gunn evil of “No Reason.” Chunked out fuzz bass drags this grit-filled wall of distortion down into the dynamic verse, building into a guitar roar under the raw vocal of Dan Matthews. “No Reason” gives off sonic echoes of 1970s hard rock mated with the melancholy angst of In Utero.
Blake is up next on “Breathing,” throwing his trademark sardonic vocal deep into the track while Matthews switches off rhythm duty for a full frontal attack of tube-fueled riffs and runs done in the scary vein of Adam Jones (Tool). Bassist Gary Moses and drummer Cory King teeter on progressive as they steer this venomous beast back to the barn. Blake’s vocal ranges from dark and lulling melodic to what could be best described as paint peeling screams, and like the other pieces to this heavy puzzle, it locks tightly into the right place at the right time.
“Defective Mind” reminds me of old Alice In Chains with its half step/minor sounding madness. Guitars chug as bass stretches down underneath steady and syncopated drum work. Blake’s lead work hisses and spits harmonic sizzle all the way down the fretboard before groaning into a bar bending finale, hailing the chorus and vocal power of Dan Matthews. This is a feedback-soaked example of what rock and roll is supposed to sound like.
“Again” cranks up with the dual guitar attack of Blake and Matthews. Both players demonstrate exceptional six-string talent here as well as throughout the CD, and I’m impressed by the way they really thought about what they were playing versus just blowing out a middle eight solo. Dynamics is a word I use a lot with bands like this group as they truly rise, ebb and flow throughout the song. Tumultuous choruses blast into the soundscape as the two players dodge in and out of the target range with sonic timing and compositional dexterity.
Jumping around the disc, “Stalemate” struck me as different right away. This is a left turn for the band on the CD, and it’s the right direction. Matthews’ guitar process is unique and detailed, running from interspatial support to gritty; blues-fueled hot shots that disappear under the rhythmic wall of sound supplied by King and Moses. Blake punches straight through the middle of this rock ‘n’ roll maze, displaying trained lyrical prose and cunning fretboard strategies.
“Blue Blocker” is an old Sunshine Flipside tune written by Lonnie Rutledge. Down and dirty, “Blue Blocker” modulates up and down the fretboard as Blake and Matthews riff, bend and ping harmonic code all over the intro. Matthews’ vocal is pure gravel as he mid-ranges through the heart of the song. Middle eight is the bastard child of The Cramps and Foo Fighters as the band raises the musical bar before jumping back into the incoming verse and ending choruses.
It’s interesting to note that, while listening to this disc, I had several recollections of so many great bands from the ‘90s, but it is also interesting to see how The Black Clouds take these influences and run with them. Better Days was also mixed by alternative rock legend John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, The Hold Steady), which gives this disc even more ‘90s credibility fodder. There was a time when I saw this band live and thought it was just a Nirvana clone, but Better Days challenges that thought with proof of product and evolutionary transformation, and that’s the key that makes this disc work; the song hasn’t remained the same.
“Seen Better Days” is a perfect example of the growth of The Black Clouds. Appropriating influential guidance, the band climbs way out onto its own branch of chance. Guitars bend to breaking, clean, echoed, two-string pull-offs drill into tidal waves of Marshall-driven pandemonium as Matthews fires explosive hollers into the fray. Once again, King and Moses are the underrated linchpins here, holding the song ultra steady and moving through complex changes with the nonplussed concentration of Grohl and Novoselic.
“Rid Of Me” hails the return of the Nirvana influence. The chorus moves that comparison a little to the right before the band blasts back into the riff-tangled bridge. Verses are caterwauling vocal sizzle. Full and powerful, Black and Matthews are truly talented vocalists. I marvel at the ability to sing at such a ferocious level for such periods of time. Dan Matthews’ vocal abilities aside, “Rid Of Me” rises and falls, breathing like a flesh and blood mutation that moves on its own savage power. Agnello mixed this well, but this is yet another great song, produced by The Black Clouds, which stands out from anything else in a market glutted with limp-wristed bluegrass copycats from the $20 latte capital of Brooklyn.
“All Or Nothing” runs the gamut from evil, Black Sabbath guitar runs to the melodic commercialism of Soul Asylum. Blake’s penchant for metaphor flares up as Matthews lays down the six-string law. Dissonant chords launch Suicidal Tendencies vibrations as the Clouds darken and twist. I love the chord vamps and double lead harmonies of Blake and Matthews here. Precise and well blended, you couldn’t ask for a better guitar record.
Better Days is filled with surprises from a band that both embraces and scorns its influential DNA. While there are a few songs I haven’t touched on here, the majority has left me wanting to see these guys live again, and that’s the true reason records get made in the first place.
Go see The Black Clouds live this coming Friday night at The Saint in Asbury Park and pick up Better Days; it will definitely straighten out your 24-hour timeline. For more information, go to theblackclouds.com