Album Review: Clinic – Free Reign

[Domino; 2012]

It’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. In the years following, they have established themselves as marathon runners rather than sprinters, sputtering out habitually puckish music on a remarkably regular basis.

Still, at this point it seems unlikely that they’ll ever be able match the initial burst of speed they achieved with Internal Wrangler. When your debut is so well-written and so idiosyncratic, anything following that doesn’t exceed expectations is likely to be relegated to the dreaded class of “good, not great.” Clinic have always commanded more deference from their peers than their audience. Invitations to tour with the likes of Radiohead and Flaming Lips have given them the opportunity to grow into something else on stage, while their identity on their records has endured.

This is not to say that Clinic don’t still flirt with the idea of greatness. Free Reign, the band’s seventh full-length in twelve years, has reminders of this fact interposed throughout its runtime. It gasps and gurgles, drifting in and out of focus, its exploratory personality proves elusive upon first listen. Take opening track “Misty,” which lopes along creepily and stoically. Surprisingly, it’s Ade Blackburn’s mucky vocals that offer the softened landing. It annexes itself, swelling up to an unprecedented five minutes in length.

The remnants of krautrock have always lurked in the background of Clinic’s music, but the brevity of their music prevented them from really venturing too deep into the genre. Free Reign fills out their songs whilst working within the boundaries that they’ve been establishing for over a decade. Highlight “Miss You” digs into a bubbly psychedelic groove, working in the sounds early genre acts like The Yardbirds. The hunger in Blackburn’s words is muted by the lazy layers of reverb, but his drawl is as mystifying as ever, and the song reaches its climax with a fade out that stops before you’re ready to say goodbye.

Some other songs (“See Saw”) may have worked better as outbursts rather than meditations. With bristly guitars and a puckering drum machine, the lovably-titled “Seamless Boogie Woogie, BBC2 10pm (rpt)” is addling and jittery, yet warm. Free Reign ultimately finds the balance between these components, but there is a sense that Clinic struggled to get there. They’ve ironed out their eccentricities, and produced their silkiest and least combative record in the process.