WHALE HOUSE – Album Review: “Clowder”

Whale House Clowder art

Whale House is a psychedelic rock band that got its start in 2007 when Caleb Price and Clayton Brice met while students at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. Sharing a love of both classic 60s counter-culture rock and the 90s alternative/grunge rock of their youth, they quickly bonded and began writing and producing songs together in Clayton’s apartment. Their music combines these two rock influences, while experimenting with structure and timbre to create their own unique modern rock sound. Wanting to take their music to the next level, they moved to the recording studio, where they could benefit from the expertise of a professional production team.

Whale House 2

Between 2009 and 2015 they released three EPs, and in 2016 dropped two singles, “Freeway” and “Think of Me”. That November, they released awesome videos of live performances of “Think of Me” and another of their tracks “Red Sun”. I reviewed those videos, which you can read here. Now, nearly three years later, Caleb and Clayton return with their first full-length album Clowder, which will be available on all streaming platforms September 7th, with CDs and vinyl shipping now.

The songs for Clowder were constructed over the course of a year from (in their own words) “sound bytes flung back and forth through the ether across the 300 miles that now separate Caleb and Clayton.” The album was recorded direct to tape at Drum Farm Studios, a re-purposed organic farm in northwest Wisconsin. With the help of drummer John Richardson, they recorded most of the tracks live as a three-piece to recreate the spontaneity of a live show. Veteran producer Tom Herbers produced and mixed the songs, and John Golden did the mastering.

Into the Bluffs” kicks off Clowder in a big way with a burst of Richardson’s pummeling drumbeats accompanied by melodic piano keys. Layers of fuzzy guitars, bass and more keyboards are soon added as Caleb and Clayton sing with a harmony as near-perfect as any I’ve heard in a while. The lyrics are somewhat ambiguous, but seem to speak to tapping into one’s spiritual being: “Give me a sign. Search yourself and follow me in. Look into the bluffs. Ghosts are gathering in the upper atmosphere. Spirits calmly watch me yeah.

Next up is “Doll“, a dark song inspired by Caleb’s experience spending time in the hospital with his mother while she was in a carbon monoxide poisoning induced coma. “And I know it’s over. I’ll pull the plug and let her go. After it’s over, I’ll start the engine, shut the door.” The song’s melody and structure give off a Nirvana vibe, with an ever-changing tempo that goes from chugging riffs of gnarly guitars to aggressive stop-start chords. Caleb’s plaintive vocals are wonderful, and I like how they rise with emotion along with the guitar notes. It all makes for a fascinating listen, and is one of my favorite tracks on the album.

A Great Fire” beautifully showcases the guys’ skill at writing complex melodies and using rich instrumentation to create an interesting soundscape that continually evolves and surprises our senses. The track opens with a strong thumping drumbeat and ominous synths, creating a mesmerizing backdrop for Clayton’s rather mournful vocals as he sings of far-off cosmic storms, possibly symbolizing unrest or even the end of the world. Gradually, guitar, bass and piano enter the mix, then everything ramps up in the chorus with jagged riffs and crashing cymbals as Clayton launches into an impassioned wail: “The pores of my skin are dripping acid. The dogs are fighting, the snakes are biting. The back of my eyelids explode with lightning!” It’s a fantastic song.

The lead single “Milk” was released on August 15th, along with a surreal and vividly colorful video. It’s a terrific grunge song, featuring a torrent of gnarly riffs set to a powerful driving beat. Caleb explained that the lyrics speak of someone bogged down in a sea of ego-driven minutiae while the the rest of the world keeps on moving forward: “Near the belly digesting away. Far away, and deep inside, visions of hell. Paralyzed from the food that has yet to metabolize. And it’s been so long. And the world moved on.

The guys take a melodic turn on the captivating “Elephant“, my absolute favorite track on the album. The lush mix of chiming and twangy guitars are drop-dead gorgeous, as are Clayton’s heartfelt vocals that express a deep vulnerability. At 2:22 minutes, a beguiling flute enters, giving the song a momentary Celtic vibe. “Spine” veers into folk-rock territory, but still retains a grunge sensibility thanks to the strong guitar work, and once again the guys’ vocal harmonies are really impressive. And speaking of strong guitar work, the guys dazzle us with their mind-blowing guitar skills on the trippy psychedelic gem “Shapeshifter“. We’ve barely had a chance to catch our breath before they return to hammer us with exuberant jangly riffs, deep, buzzing bass and frantic beats on the hard-driving banger “Papercuts“.

The title track “Clowder“is an intriguing song with fuzzy, reverb-soaked guitars and tumultuous percussion. Caleb explained the song’s meaning: “The song ‘Clowder’ is based on an old children’s book called ‘Millions of Cats’. It’s about a guy who goes out looking for a single cat and ends up being followed home by billions of them. We enjoy simple surreal imagery like that. The story ends up being about the destructive power of pride and the importance of being humble. That kind of suppression of ego is something Clayton and I aspire to and I think its a theme that pops up in a lot of our writing.” The song opens with sounds of Caleb whispering “Don’t bother me, and I won’t bother you“, then the music intensifies as Clayton’s vocals take a more insistent tone. In time, with guitars wailing and cymbals crashing in the chorus, Clayton emphatically repeats the line “Hundreds. Millions. Thousands. Billions.

Twilight Sleep” is an enchanting track, highlighted by a pleasing acoustic guitar and wonderful sweeping orchestral instrumentation that imparts an almost ethereal quality. The little piano riff in the chorus is especially good, and nicely complements Caleb and Clayton’s fervent vocal harmonies. Guest musicians on this track included violinist Ryan Young of Trampled By Turtles and cellist Hilary James of We Are The Willows. At the very end of the track, we hear Ryan Young state “I played one wrong note”, though it all sounded pretty damn perfect to my ears. The album closes with “Asleep On A Plane“, a brief but sweet love song. The music consists only of a resonant jangly guitar and bass, but combined with Caleb’s earnest vocals, the song packs quite an emotional punch.

I must admit that many of these songs took a couple of listens for me to fully connect with them, but once I did, I came to realize that Clowder is a brilliant and stunning album. Unlike a lot of pop and classic rock, with their catchy hooks and melodies that quickly bore into our brains, modern and experimental rock music requires us to really listen to hear and appreciate all the little nuances of the more complex melodies, innovative instrumentation, and somewhat abstract lyrics that Whale House have so cleverly written. If you’re willing to expend the time and effort to dig deep into their music, you will find a lot to enjoy on Clowder.

Their Record Release Party will take place Saturday SEP 14 at Brewery Nønic, Menomonie, Wisconsin

Connect with Whale House:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music:  Spotify / Apple Music / Soundcloud
Purchase:  Bandcamp / Google Play

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