2000 was a great year for music, witnessing career highs from PJ Harvey, Queens of the Stone Age, Radiohead, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Two Lone Swordsmen, Grandaddy, Smog and Primal Scream, plus exceptional debuts from Broadcast, Badly Drawn Boy, Kelis and, yes, Clinic. In probably contained enough musical enjoyment for ten years never mind one, which was a relief as the decade that followed didn’t quite deliver to the same standard.
That’s kind of the case for Clinic’s career too. That album, ‘Internal Wrangler’, was an instant classic, raucous, inventive, psychedelic, heartwarming, sinister and sincere in equal measure, easily fulfilling the promise shown by their excellently-named debut single, “IPC Subeditors Dictate Our Youth”. It ticked every box, then invented a few new ones and ticked them too. The only problem was, it was near-impossible to follow up.
“Walking With Thee” was an excellent attempt, and kept their profile high enough to get them on Letterman, while third album “Winchester Cathedral” had its moments too. However, a law of diminishing returns was in place, and subsequent albums have simply produced the same stuff but less successfully. 2010’s “Bubblegum” did try something slightly new, flirting with soft, poppy psychedelics, but it didn’t really work.
Their new album also tries something a bit different, and the good news is that this time it really works. “Free Reign” still sounds like Clinic of course, but it’s a stripped down, sparser version that distills everything about them into one clear, potent measure. Opening track ‘Misty’ sets the scene with some Suicide-style drum machine rhythms propping up what sounds like one of those big old ORLA keyboards, shuddering in the fog. Singer Ade Blackburn picks out a typically moody melody, and it quickly becomes clear that this is vintage Clinic.
Unfortunately, the next couple of tracks threaten to wreck the proposition. ‘See Saw’ suffers from overdone phasers and some seemingly intentional sloppy musicianship, although a good chorus stops it from descending into just a shabby Residents imitation, while ‘Seamless Boogie Woogie, BBC2 10pm (rpt)’ is unfortunately nowhere near as good as its title. ‘Cosmic Radiation’ gets things back on track though. It sounds like a Stereolab title and its spaced-out jazziness is a little like a Stereolab song, with Blackburn’s bizarre vocals making it sound like he’s been exposed to some sort of radiation himself.
There’s a surprise appearance by Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, on mixing duties for ‘Miss You’, and he subtly alters the sound of the song as it progresses, before suddenly opening up with a section that sounds a little like ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. It’s ace. ‘King Kong’ is another corker, like Silver Apples watching an episode of Funny Bones, with a bizarre juddering edit halfway through to stop you getting too comfortable.
Lopatin returns on the krautrock workout of ‘You’, before ‘Sun And The Moon’ takes things into the statosphere, sounding like the band are trying to channel Sun Ra. Percussive elements stagger in and out of time, strange electronic hisses occur without warning and the clarinet produces clear tones as a woman laughs maniacally in the background, while all the while a keyboard punches the same chord over and over and over.
You imagine the looser elements are what inspired the title, but it turns out that’s an ironic reference to financial restraints, with Blackburn admitting, “we called the album Free Reign because being in a band, at the moment, it feels like you have anything but”. He’s also expressed worries that people won’t give the album the attention they once would have. “I suppose to be up to your seventh album, people often think, ‘Well, I know all I need to know about this band.’ So they might not investigate it as much as they would have done in the past”. They’d be fools if they didn’t – this is Clinic’s best album in a decade. It’s good to have them, properly, back.