It certainly feels as if things are starting to shift, right? Britney Spears launches an (ahem) acting career, Ryan Adams making a (relative) splash at the Grammys, the endless (though still sub-Dylan) hype of the White-Stripes-Strokes-New Pornographers-et cetera. And the landscape it’s all occurring in — a (near) calamity! Music sales down double percentage points! A recession kicking happy-go-lucky pop in the shins! From critics to fans, from sea to shining sea, voices are in resounding chorus: please, give us something — anything — to believe in!
Though, let truth be told: in those historical moments when everything sonic appears to be coming undone, what’s probably occurring is that the big shots of the music industry have yet to put their muscle, however atrophying, behind something. (Let’s not forget what happened in the mainstream to techno, grunge, and much of hip-hop.) It’s time to stop kidding ourselves: we won’t be saved by whatever whoever’s pushing/pulling/talking about; nope, real salvation comes down to ourselves, our gumption, and our own personal, musical Jesus. This reality points to a fallacy not of the creative product (the music), but rather of the systemic means of production (the “machine”). To make a dent beyond the most insular of circles, the industry rules remain uniform: well-positioned stories, fancy video eye-candy, savvy merchandising, and inescapable singles on radio, radio.
That is, unless you’re Clinic.
(A tizzy of colorful noise.)
Clinic. Forget for a minute that their debut, Internal Wrangler (2000 UK release, 2001 US release) has been praised in some of the biggest arts and culture publications around. Forget that Thom Yorke adores them, or that the 2002 Walking With Thee and pending US tour have their fanatical fan base chomping hungrily at the bit. In the face of the spotlight, Clinic remain remarkably hidden, secretive. The mystique ranges from the intentional (the uniform dress, the masks, the low profile) to the indigenous (the songs that, like vultures, pick apart musical styles and feast on them). This band has no hunky lead singer (that we’ve gotten a good look at, anyway), no US singles to date, and no videos (unless you count a Levis commercial that dabbles with “The Second Line” from Internal Wrangler); nary a song sounds as if they’ve even heard — or heard of — popular radio.
(An aural puzzle of dazzling pieces.)
Walking With Thee, the sophomore effort from this idiosyncratic Liverpool foursome, boils the over-the-top pandemonium from Internal Wrangler down a distilled yet active core. This is an album of controlled kinetics and clockwork alignments, of bonding repetition and mindful invention; where words poke and play, bubble and pop, echo and disturbingly hang. Saying it’s like nothing you’ve heard before is both an understatement and an overstatement; rather, it’s composed of things you should or would or could have heard — tiny noises, surprising synergies, contemplative ticking. That is, if only you’d delved into your mind, tuned into your environs, and actually tried listening.
(Sounds that are without limit or length.)
Walking With Thee album opens with “Harmony”, a hypnotic, haunting trip through placidity, paranoia, and panic. It begins with a chilled keyboard, melodica, and a mechanical bass drum/high hat hand-off that solemnly, yet urgently, repeats. Singer Ade Blackburn quickly joins in with awkward, insistent singing: “I believe in harmony/ I believe in Christmas Eve Fill yourself with dreams.” The music behind him pulses, and builds to the end of the verse. (That is, if you can call it that — the components of Clinic songs are more like vignettes than verses.) By the song’s end, Blackburn’s singing has devolved (evolved?) into his signature unintelligible mewing, as the music weans down to a warning sign.
(Instruments reborn, evolved, freed.)
Next comes “The Equaliser”, a brighter track that tinkers with hopscotching percussion: electrolytic, echoing handclaps and a drum rhythm that at points gives way to an almost funky drum machine. The liveliness breaks dramatically on the chorus, as Blackburn sings over silence that is quickly followed up by guitarist Hartley’s clarinet. “Welcome”, the next track, utilizes the same trick of keying up the theatrics using strategic crescendos and diminuendos. “Who could you disintegrate for?” Blackburn whispers ominously — and before the utter spookiness of that line sinks in, the energy level rises again, rife with ooos, driving rhythms, break-it-down guitars.
(Noise of unease, wonder.)
Clinic’s sound banks on the ability to be simultaneously symmetrical and irregular, frantic and oddly at peace. Exhibit A: the title track “Walking with Thee”, opens with a standard, open rock rhythm of bass and snare, before being layered by carnival-meets-catatonia guitar and desperate, wild vocals. Guitar lines bleed together, then suddenly become upright, as Blackburn calls out “No!” like a command and a cry for help. Exhibit B: “Come Into Our Room” is a sonically despondent and supernatural track, but a lyrical temptation. (“Come into our room,” Blackburn sings, like a spell. “It’s wonderful with you.” In fact, the whole album — despite its piecemeal stylings — is remarkably congruent in its alluring mysticism. So much so that even the most uncharacteristic track — “Pet Eunoch”, a punk-inspired guitar eruption that’s barely two minutes long — turns out to be without exit or entry, and is suspiciously subliminal.
Or nakedly telling, if you’re Clinic.
There’s a reason it’s been said that Clinic are the band Radiohead wishes they could be. Desired to forever be what they were on OK Computer, Radiohead have been critiqued on recent albums for focusing too much on heady listeners and generating songs that were inaccessible. Clinic, on the other hand, are most appreciated by those who expressly want to listen and who’ll momentarily relinquish complete understanding for deep and complex awe. Regardless of how many fans it may or may not garner, Walking With Thee is anything but a ready-made, easy-on-the-ears album. It confuses unapologetically and experiments voraciously — and this is what makes it genius. Radiohead, as one of the biggest rock bands of this current milieu, haven’t lost their creative touch, but they are begged by many to lose their creative freedom.
Is music at another beginning, or another end? Regardless, Walking With Thee feels like the next era. It is an album ripe with expectation, innovation, and disruption, from a band that are ineffable, incomprehensible, and irreplaceable. If only somebody — anybody — could ring the alarm! If only those truly wanting freedom and inspiration could read the obvious signs! Band without ego, songs without sense, styles without convenient names or references! I implore you, consider the limitless possibilities. In this brave new world, could Walking With Thee be our manifesto? Have we discovered the all-new radio-friendly?