Produced by the band themselves in their hometown of Liverpool and mixed with the assistance of Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), Free Reign is an extremely apt title for a particularly bold and assured new transmission from planet Clinic. In the fifteen years since the release of the irrepressible band's debut EP, Ade Blackburn and co. have essentially delivered an exquisite master-class in fearless singularity - consistently and steadfastly pushing the frontiers of their perfectly-defined, next-dimension pop trips on their own trajectory over the course of six, and now seven, confoundingly magnificent albums.
A Grammy nomination, performance on The David Letterman Show, high profile tours with fans such as The Flaming Lips, Radiohead and Arcade Fire and a lot of reverence from notable artists - both established and emergent - over the years have seen Clinic flirt with the mainstream and be cemented into cult firmament alike, without ever really courting either acceptance directly. Their craft, one that has always bloomed in isolation and seemed impervious to the fickle tide of trend or fad, remains both resolutely eclectic and acutely focused. The junkshop-trawling analogue fetishism of the warm, smokey instrumentation that gives their songs such a vividly placeable sense of mood and atmosphere; the surrealist bent of Blackburn's lyrics - so steeped in their own personal mythology - and the band's over-riding commitment to never straying into the realm of the obvious or complacent are all long-standing elements of Clinic's work that are furthered, perfected even, on Free Reign.
Free Reign's predecessor - the wistful, bittersweet Bubblegum - saw the band welcoming an outsider, Dallas-based producer John Congleton into their fold for the first time and as such marked a subtle but not insignificant step away from the mutated strand of post-punk that had up to that point been the band's calling card. Under Congleton's influence, the frenetic, breakneck pace of the band's usual predilection slowed a little, songs stretched out into more exploratory territory and drew from a richer, warmer palette of sounds that emphasized a new, more classically songwriter-led approach to composition perfectly. It was a record that still had marks of the murky, subterranean energy of Clinic but one that had, in Blackburn's words at the time, "mellowed" somewhat.
So, what next? A less restlessly, creatively contrary entity than Clinic at this point in their career might be content to put their feet up; continue smoothing off those rough edges, replicate Bubblegum’s comparatively easy charms and settle down for good. Of course, that is not the case here. Recorded in vintage Clinic style without outside interference in the band’s Liverpool bolthole, Free Reign neither turns its back on the direction of Bubblegum, nor seeks to revisit it verbatim, instead incorporating the simple, childlike melodies and spacious nature of the former whilst at the same time being as powerful, visceral and rhythmically charged as anything the band have ever recorded.
The freakish gospel crawl of opening song ‘Misty’ sets the bar high right from the off; Blackburn's familiar acidic incantations casting him as a kind of extra-terrestrial preacher amidst a storm of hissing electronic interference, motorik drums and almost abrasively loud, warped vintage organ wobble. When juxtaposed with the harshness of the noise upon which it floats the playful, naïve nature of the vocal melody rings like some sort of post-apocalyptic lullaby for the world itself - the disarmingly gentle proclamation of "Misty, we've won" becoming almost foreboding. It's an enigmatic, potently evocative introduction to the record and in many ways is classic Clinic - shining the spirit of vintage songwriting through their own foggy prism until it takes on strange, spooked new shapes - and yet it feels more fierce and stark now than perhaps ever before.
“We enjoyed making Bubblegum and experimenting with some more laid-back song structures and sounds but it wasn’t interesting to us to try and do that again. We thought it’d be fun to gravitate towards a sound that was louder and rawer whilst keeping the emphasis on songwriting. Making the record ourselves again, in a very DIY fashion allowed us to have that feel”, explains Blackburn. “We wanted to evoke the energy that our early more post-punk stuff had but without relying on the guitars to carry that. And so on this record, all the noise and abrasion comes from the drum machines and keys instead, that was something new for us.”
The result of this process is a record that manages to marry together a typically eclectic and diffuse set of aesthetic touch points within a unified sense of nervous energy. ‘Miss You’ is an extremely off-kilter slow jam with a unsettlingly twisted funk riff that creeps along obsessively like a heavily medicated Invaders, the damaged waves of interference and ghostly effects that cut through the mix making the titular refrain sound as dark as it is romantic.
The very appropriately titled, hypnotic jazz freak-out ‘Cosmic Radiation’, meanwhile, sounds like The Fall playing on a Sun Ra or Charles Mingus number; a seriously sickly-sounding clarinet pushing the red as the whole thing jitters along in a way that suggests imminent spontaneous combustion. Slow builder ‘You’ starts by sampling schoolyard chatter dissipating into white noise and proceeds to unfold into a sprawling drug-dub with a blasted baggy swing and ‘Boney M’ summons the proto space rock spirit of Hawkwind and puts it in fifth gear, Blackburn barking a reverb-heavy sermon from within the maelstrom. Only the lethargically blissful ‘Seasons’ really takes the pedal off the metal, but with its frayed church organ and hissing, scattershot beat, even that has an intensity to go alongside its gentle, inebriated sensuality.
Unflinchingly original, hugely innovative, hopelessly weird and defiantly beautiful; a raw, DIY album of slyly virtuoso musicality and brave, beguiling songcraft, Free Reign is the new album by Clinic. Who else?