Release Date: Nov 13, 2012
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, New Wave/Post-Punk Revival
On Clinic’s 2010 record, Bubblegum, Liverpool’s surgical-mask-wearing foursome took its frenetic post-punk into new, relatively subdued territory. That laidback aesthetic is again present on Clinic’s latest, Free Reign, but it’s morphed into something significantly trippier, and infinitely more seductive. Each of the record’s nine tracks casts a uniquely hypnotic spell that transports us into varying landscapes; “Cosmic Radiation,” with its groovy, pulsating jazz foundation, sends us onto a sprawling, free-floating journey to the edges of space and back, while “King Kong” takes us into dark, smoky rooms, where each flash of a strobe light uncovers a deliciously illicit deed.
Though Clinic have made subtle yet noticeable changes to their sound on every album, the foundations of their music are so consistent -- chugging rhythms, an air of mystery -- that they get a somewhat unfair reputation for being samey. While nothing may change that reputation this far into their career, Free Reign offers more proof that they can take their fundamentals in any direction they choose. Where their last album, Bubblegum, touched on virtually every kind of song they've attempted and gave it all a pop twist, on Free Reign they hone in with nine lengthy excursions into their psychedelic side.
Dressed in their signature surgical masks and hospital gowns, Clinic has spent more than a decade making jangled paranoia-inducing post-rock at the intersection of rockabilly, funk, and Radiohead. Their songs can be spiky, relying on syncopated snare hits and jagged guitar and organ harmonies, or they can turn on a dime and become eerily slow, unfolding in echoes and reverberating melodies. On Free Reign, the old adjectives still apply, but the proportions have changed.
Now 15 years into their career, Clinic have left their surgical masks on longer than KISS initially kept on their make-up, and this rigid visual motif makes it easy to overlook the Liverpool art-rock quartet's evolution. We've grown accustomed to conflating an artist's musical progression with their changing appearances-- like when they go through a beardo phase, or get ill-advised new-wave haircuts, or start wearing guyliner. But Clinic always look like Clinic, which reinforces the idea that they always sound like Clinic.
ClinicFree Reign[Domino; 2012]By Brendan Frank; November 21, 2012Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetIt’s interesting to consider how certain bands would have turned out had their discography unfolded in a different order. Timing and chronology can be crucial to a band’s legacy, second in some cases only to the music itself. For Liverpool quartet Clinic, their defining moment is and will likely remain, May, 2000.
Clinic has been around long enough by now to be taken for granted and the Liverpool group has no one to blame for that than itself. That’s because they have been so consistent both in their noise-pop sound as well as the quality of their output over the past 15 years that it’s often easy to overlook these vets for newer, trendier acts. Through the years, the band’s antagonistic, even belligerent stance on indie-pop has turned into something familiar, almost like a warm, fuzzy security blanket of carnivalesque psychedelia.
Over the past 15 years, Clinic have carved out a distinctive niche in the rock ’n’ roll landscape. Taking cues from experimental rock groups like Can, Suicide and the Velvet Underground, supplemented by snippets of dub, surf, doo-wop and psychedelia, Clinic write labyrinthine, enigmatic, minimalist pop songs in which every element seems painstakingly arranged according to a system the listener can’t quite parse. Free Reign, their seventh and latest album, further advances the Liverpudlian art-rockers’ cool and inscrutable agenda.
Clinic are as known-quantity as a band can get. They are one of those antidote bands designed for fans who get mad when a band evolves too much. If they are changing, it’s at a scarcely detectable speed, like an exciting glacier (apologies to any geologist Under the Radar readers)..
The swirling, Bridget Rileyish op art on the cover of Clinic's seventh album depicts a disorienting tunnel of interlocking circles and squares, and there's something of that to its sound, too, as woozy clouds of guitar and analogue synth noise bloom and coil above stark, taut, monochromatic rhythm lines. It's hardly an unprecedented set of sounds, but these long-established Liverpool psych-rockers manage to shake them up into some interesting new(ish) configurations. See-Saw is terrific, throwing a weirdly stiff, honking sax line in with its hypnotic, garagey riff; there's one song called Boney M, but gladly it sounds more like vintage Kraftwerk; and Cosmic Radiation is an oddly tense, scared-straight kind of jazz.
Clinic will always sound like Clinic, and that’s hard to get away from. No matter how much they adjust their formula, Ade Blackburn’s eerie, tense vocals still stamp every song with the Clinic trademark. 2010’s Bubblegum saw them moving towards a pop-oriented sound. Free Reign is slower, a bit more experimental and full of wandering codas.
Chronically at the edge of accessibility, the masked men of Liverpool’s Clinic don’t seem to mind their not-quite-mass-appeal. Sure, they’ve opened for bands like Arcade Fire and Radiohead, as well as releasing six well-received LPs. But Ade Blackburn and compatriots also continue to wear surgeon’s masks, adorn album covers with trippy spirals, and release music in the form of a “glow-in-the-dark, cosmic flying disc.” On their seventh album, Free Reign, the psychedelia is looser and sloppier, seemingly even less interested in grabbing that crossover spotlight than usual.
I’ve reached a point in my life where many of the bands that were bright, young, and promising when I was in my early twenties have become not so bright, young, or promising anymore. Over the past couple years, I’ve reviewed bad to middling albums by such ex-wunderkinds as Asobi Seksu and The Concretes. Aside from sharing the same lukewarm space in contemporary rock journalism’s phantom zone, both artists made a name for themselves with striking debut albums that embraced very particular styles and then proceeded to define their careers by systematically watering their respective sounds down beyond the point of recognition.
With a singular output that now totals seven albums over a fifteen-year existence, it's more than a little easy to succumb to temptation and take Clinic for granted. Existing outside the dictates of fashion, the Liverpool psychdelicists' steady output has seen them grow from the North West's answer to The 13th Floor Elevators into a band whose cosmic explorations have moved away from the claustrophobia that was their calling card and into broader yet no less mind-expanding territories. If 2010's Bubblegum found the band compromising their vision with the introduction of an outside producer for the first time, Free Reign is an album that lives up to its name as the band wrestle back creative control.
When Clinic emerged at the back end of the 90s, clad in surgical outfits and boldly singing ‘IPC Sub-Editors Dictate Our Youth’, the Liverpudlian foursome unintentionally informed their appeal over the intervening fifteen years: critical darlings without ever really crossing over. What’s more, they’re beloved of their fellow artists - touring with Radiohead, Arcade Fire and Flaming Lips - yet perhaps have always been that bit too weird for consumption by the great unwashed.Does ‘Free Reign’ alter this? Not remotely. But it’s a fantastically skewed exercise in sheer contrarianism.