By: Eric Greenwood
Back in the early 1990's, Nashville, Tennessee was home to an exciting and innovative rock trio that assimilated genres in a way that few bands had the balls, much less the chops, to pull off. Clockhammer's music was rooted in heavy metal and punk, but it veered off into blues, prog-rock tangents, and jazz-fusion seemingly effortlessly. Its songs were extreme in every sense of the word: the hard parts pummeled you with pounding rhythms and fiery distortion, and, likewise, the soft parts were delicate and clear, floating like ephemeral jewels.
Clockhammer released its self-titled debut on the eve of Nirvana's breakthrough in 1991. The album propelled the band to cult status regionally in the south, and the band opened for all the big names that came through town, solidifying its reputation amongst the underground elite. The trio of Byron Bailey, Matt Swanson (who went on to play with My Dad Is Dead), and Ken Coomer (who went on to play with Uncle Tupelo and Wilco) was a remarkable concentration of talent. Bailey was no less than a wizard on the guitar; he could rip a blazing solo with all the requisite histrionics and then change direction completely on the drop of a dime. Swanson's bass playing matched Bailey's showy guitar style but with more of a punk edge. And Coomer's drumming was simply monstrous. The band's future seemed limitless.
The strong but moderately-paced opener, "Mother Truth", blends a metal riff with traces of skate thrash in the rhythm section, although much slower. Spoken word samples intermingle with Bailey's guitar. His voice is strong and clear, but his lyrics are practically indecipherable. It's an anomaly that I have yet to figure out. The vocals are loud enough to hear, but Bailey sounds like he's mumbling the words. "Trial By Fire" is a sure-fire rocker that melds a jazzy verse with a mountainous, balls to the wall chorus. Bailey's vocals morph to match the mood of the music. When the parts are soft he sings gently, but when the distortion kicks in he wails like a wounded animal.
At that time there were few bands that were this schizophrenic. Clockhammer would never let you get too comfortable, switching gears just when you started to bob your head. Most bands would sound like a herky-jerky mess if they tried Clockhammer's dynamics on for size, but that was Clockhammer's ace in the hole. It could pull off these changes and make them sound natural, flowing even. On "Boys In Blue" the band unleashes its thrashing rage, but it can't help but throw in a pretty chorus, revealing the subtle power of Bailey's vocal range. "Bridges Burn" is a strange beast. Starting off with a funky, fuzzy riff, the song quickly nose-dives into a flowery ballad, while Bailey emotes over the clean jangle of his guitar. Not many thrash bands would be brave enough to flaunt a six-minute ballad, but with Clockhammer there's little adherence to convention.
The instrumental "Extra Crispy" allows the band to showcase its talents. Bailey's guitar virtuosity is on full display, as he fires off jazzy run after jazzy run. As the song builds to its taut climax, Matt Swanson's bass line attempts to upstage Bailey's guitar playing with a noodly yet effective run. Coomer remains restrained and relaxed behind the drums, punching the parts as necessary. "Lament" is another schizophrenic rocker akin to "Trial By Fire." The verses are built around a gorgeous arpeggio, as Bailey harmonizes with himself, again, with utterly indecipherable lyrics. The chorus is a surging assault, allowing Bailey to purge his demons. Coomer's drumming is dynamic and incessant, particularly on the dazzling outro.
"Whither" is the angriest song on Clockhammer's debut. Bass-heavy thrash underscores Bailey's freakish outbursts. Chugging, evil-sounding build-ups lead into the chorus, where Bailey loses it, emotionally. The song is full of complex rhythmic shifts and busy guitar/bass interplay. The second run through the chorus is the climax, and Bailey sounds truly possessed, as his voice breaks up in the midst of his ranting. "No Show" follows the, by now, familiar formula of extreme dynamics, but it's the lyrical content that sets it apart. Bailey is surprisingly eloquent and articulate in the verses, as he recounts a story familiar to any touring band- that of showing up at an out of town club, hoping to God somebody comes. "Calypso" is a punchy pop song disguised by the sludge of distortion, but Bailey's penchant for sharp hooks resonates.
The darkest, most engrossing song of the album is its official closer, "The Sun Goes Black." Bailey speed strums a clean set of chords that unfurl into the most memorable chorus of the album, wherein Bailey really lets it rip vocally. A strange, paranoid interlude cuts the song in half. It's an obtrusive digression, but after repeated listens it seems to work. It could be that the other two halves are just so good that it gets a pass. Either way, "The Sun Goes Black" is a fantastic song. The band's cover of "Girl From Ipanema" would be tongue in cheek if it weren't so heart-felt. It's featured only on later pressings of this debut- all of which are long out of print, but you can find it in random used record bins across the country. And I suggest that you do so because this far-underrated classic should not be forgotten.