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. This far into a career, Clinic’s best analogues might be the likes of the Fall and Stereolab, rabble-rousing mainstays who were more interested in pushing what was possible for their signature sounds no matter if fewer and fewer folks were still paying attention.
When you first hear the rounded edges and atmospheric approach of Clinic’s latest Free Reign, the initial assumption you’re likely to make is that the band is settling into its elder statesman status. While Clinic’s last effort, 2010’s Bubblegum made gestures, as the title suggested, at going in a more streamlined direction, Free Reign is even more refined, though in a different way, playing up what the quartet’s aesthetic has in common with high-concept electronic music. But Free Reign is hardly an example of Clinic growing old gracefully, even if the new album is easier listening than anything else in the band’s catalog – if anything, the most radical thing Clinic could do at this point is to mellow out and stretch out its typically hot-and-bothered agit-pop.
So maybe it’s a counterintuitive thing to say, but the opener “Misty” makes a striking, even shocking first impression for Free Reign by being so measured and downbeat. Whether it’s due to the hazy palette and the toned down organs or the way frontman Ade Blackburn’s normally sneering vocals seem more introspective here, there’s a patient mood to “Misty” that finds Clinic simmering instead of boiling over, its distinctive keyboard lines radiating with a warm glow rather than pulsating with an anxious, jittery vibe. Right then and there, it’s hard not to notice the impact that mixer Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) has on Clinic, broadening the range of textures available to the band. While up-tempo ditties like the jagged “See Saw” and the romping “King Kong” might come closer to what comes to mind with Clinic, they nonetheless redirect the group’s frenetic energies into something almost ambient that’s focused more on the feel they express than anything else. With its bizarro spaghetti western melodies set back a little in the soundscape, “See Saw”, in particular, comes across more like a remix of an early Clinic single than the thing itself.
This new approach comes to full fruition on the single “Miss You”, which is the best case scenario for Clinic’s rejiggered blueprint, at once conveying just enough of the overtones associated with ‘em, while accentuating different elements to their sound. There’s enough giddy-up in the guitar riffs and organ refrains to gain momentum on “Miss You”, but what really keeps it moving along is the way Clinic rides a groove here. With Clinic’s identifiable moves distilled to their essence, the rhythmic elements on “Miss You” have more room to maneuver, be it the plump, rolling bass, the skittering drum machine beats, or even Blackburn’s attempt at a soulful croon. Following it up is the chilled-out “For the Season”, on which Clinic skillfully executes the give-and-take between its instincts and what it has learned over time, slowing down and smoothing out its antsy aesthetic in a lullaby-like waltz where an unexpected knack for harmonizing shines through.
Maybe exploratory pieces like the low-profile “Seamless Boogie Woogie BBC2 10pm (rpt)” and the jazzadelic “Cosmic Radiation” meander too far down an experimental path, but, for the most part, Clinic strikes a workable balance between improv-ish noodling and the tighter structures that have been its default mode. Indeed, you get a better sense of how well this compromise plays out on Free Reign’s last two offerings, “You” and “Sun and the Moon”, which take advantage of the foursome’s acquired experience to more fully realize what’s been its vision all along. “You” airs out the claustrophobic sound Clinic is known for, matching crisp glitchy beats and sweeping swathes of synths to create spacey effects that reach a crescendo slowly but surely. And the expansive “Sun and the Moon” ends Free Reign on a high note with what’s basically a free-jazz take on Clinic’s tried-and-true formula, as floating, off-kilter horns and steady percussion piece together a sauntering melody that’s as much the product of gained proficiency as it is intuition.
Closing out as it does with “Sun and the Moon”, Free Reign goes to show that these oddballs can’t still throw a few curves even when you’ve come to appreciate you get what you expect from them. All in all, Clinic lives up to the title of the album, giving itself free rein to pursue its creative impulses.