‘Consistency’ is the keystone for Clinic. Twelve years from their outstanding debut Internal Wrangler, they release their seventh album Free Reign. A follow-up to 2010’s Bubblegum, Free Reign will spring no surprises on fans; the key elements of Clinic’s sound are all present: Abe Blackburn’s distinct gritted-teeth vocals, jangly guitars and vintage organs.
That is not to say Free Reign is without progression. Though last album Bubblegum was a quieter affair, flirting with pop sensibilities, Free Reign has taken a turn away from guitar-driven songs. The instrumentation is more stripped back and many of the tracks contain an electronic drum kit. The approach to song writing, however, is unchanged, the songs are often angular (see ‘King Kong’) and Blackburn’s rambling lyrics (‘Cosmic Radiation’) are mainstays.
It is a rule of thumb that every Clinic album sounds like themselves and someone else. Bubblegum borrowed heavily from Loaded-era Velvet Underground, Internal Wrangler has moments of near-Radiohead pop and Winchester Cathedral sounds a bit like Travis playing Clinic covers. The partner of choice for this album is undoubtedly Kraftwerk. Above all, Autobahn is the record to which I would draw the most comparisons. The music is full of straight lines and the staccato rhythms add a particularly mechanical element to the songs. Many Clinic fans, myself included, enjoyed their music best in its lively simplicity in the era of Internal Wrangler and Walking with Thee. Each time a new record is released, it will be held up in comparison with these two. So how does it fare? The answer is not particularly well. The energy of ‘Return of the Evil Bill’ or ‘Pet Eunuch’ is never revisited, the simplicity of ‘The Second Line’ or ‘Walking with Thee’ is also missing.
This, however, is not a fair meter. Clinic are not trying to rewrite either album. Although their sound remains similar, there is a progression from record to record. The question remains as to how this album holds up in its own right. It has some thoroughly enjoyable moments; the jangling, jaunty ‘Sun and the Moon’ and the spacey, psychedelic ‘Cosmic Radiation’ are both excellent songs. Clinic have incorporated the electronic elements into their music without any moments of uncertainty.
Nonetheless, the album is not totally without issue. As with all Clinic albums, this feels purely like a collection of songs, there is no feeling of a cohesive listen. It comes to the point where listening to this album on shuffle will have the exact same effect as the order it was intended; electronic drums are swapped out for an acoustic kit on whim, the more frantic songs and the slower numbers are put side-by-side randomly. Instead of ending conclusively, it fades out with the amateur wailing of an otherwise sensibly unheard clarinet. A number of the songs (‘Misty’, ‘Miss You’) don’t introduce enough new elements or progress beyond the verse-chorus-verse sufficiently to justify their length. Problems aside, all the songs are good additions to the Clinic collection.
Free Reign is an interesting addition to the Clinic catalogue, bringing in new sounds while maintaining the key elements that have helped them build a successful career. This new chapter is an interesting listen, but certainly not the album to displace Internal Wrangler or Walking with Thee.
Francis is listening to Steve Roach – ‘Quiet Music’