Long-time masked men Clinic released their new album, Free Reign, this past Tuesday, and after listening to it straight through two or three times, I am woefully underwhelmed. It’s hard not to have a good deal of respect for the band, who has managed to straddle the line between known and unknown for the last decade-and-a-half. It’s also especially difficult not to marvel at their image — colorfully-matched, surgical mask-wearing, freak-popsters — which is still such a rock-solid look and concept after 15 years that it often (unfairly) defines them to new listeners.
But the album: it’s boring.
Clinic is good at writing songs that sound like their came so far out of left field that they might as well have been sunstroked into oblivion on the bleachers, and while Free Reign is a good attempt at turning the lights out and flipping the synths/drum machines into “Suicide” mode, that energy is all but gone.
Still, the while the album doesn’t come close to the breakneck rawness of sawtooth psychedelia proper (Suicide or Moon Duo might satisfy that craving), tracks like “Seamless Boogie Woogie, BBC2 10PM (RPT)” or “For The Season” achieve a more downtempo, blissed-out kind of high, akin to late-period Spacemen 3. Those two selections also highlight what I’ve always thought to be the band’s secret weapon: the syllabic cadence and wavering delivery of vocalist Ade Blackburn.
Looking at Free Reign as the dark side to Clinic’s last album, 2010’s Bubblegum, which has a similarly light feel, except with a brighter and cleaner sound, lends the album a more completeness. On its own, however, the album comes off as a good effort, but not fully committed. Me, I’ll stick to Internal Wrangler.