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.
While 2010’s Bubblegum was a melodic and self-consciously poppy, Free Reign is moody and meditative, foregrounding organ drones, slinky bass lines and tranced-out Krautrock rhythms. As usual, singer Ade Blackburn’s drawling, under-enunciated vocals are surprisingly dynamic: sometimes a sultry croon, sometimes a menacing snarl, always enticingly incomprehensible.
Two of the album’s stand-out tracks, “Miss You” and “You,” were mixed by experimental electronic artist Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never. Their densely-layered, disorienting production adds invigorating depth to an album that sometimes threatens to drift by with minimal impact. In its 40-minute run, Free Reign barely exceeds cruise velocity before lurching to a close with “Sun and Moon,” a tiresome four minutes of dissonant jazz noodling. Many tracks on Free Reign leave a pleasant aftertaste—buzzing, honey-slow album opener “Misty,” Ambien-lounge number “For the Season”—but few cohere into anything with serious staying power.
Clinic’s rigid economy of style continues to be both an asset and a liability. Since the release of their stark and striking debut Internal Wrangler at the turn of the millennium, Clinic have been accused of treading water artistically. This isn’t entirely fair: repetition and a limited palette are an integral part of their shtick, and recent albums have offered subtle variation in tone and texture. However, the likeable elements of Free Reign are too slight and too familiar to overcome the growing sense of inertia. To keep making innovative and unsettling music, Clinic need to raise the stakes and start taking the kind of risks that might require them to lose their cool.