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Conceptual punk
Clinic stick to their art-damaged guns on Winchester Cathedral

The blips ping like sonar as "Country Mile," the first song on Clinic’s Winchester Cathedral (Domino), cues up. Then chimes come tinkling in until they’re nudged aside by an edgy, repeating guitar riff and the thump of drums. The icing is Ade Blackburn’s mush-mouthed vocal line and his occasional blasts of melodica, which seem to be drifting into the mix on some spectral wind. And we’re off, dashing headlong across the same jittery, tottering sonic planes this Liverpool outfit’s previous album, 2002’s Grammy-nominated Walking with Thee (Domino), was built upon.

Change is the sign of a great band. But sometimes knowing when not to change is also a mark of greatness, especially when a group sound as fresh and vital as Clinic. Granted, Clinic have leapt from a notion explored earlier by the Velvet Underground and their most angular first-generation punk inheritors: keeping listeners off-balance, ticking on a sense of uneasiness. The Velvets accomplished that with hairy piles of nattering, distorted guitar. Art-punk outfits like Pere Ubu and Gang of Four did it by churning out fat, choppy lines of six-string and melodica. The latter is also employed, and probably not coincidentally, by Clinic, whose use of the lung-powered keyboard instrument to conjure a sense of vastness and dread is second only to Ennio Morricone’s. He used it in his soundtracks for Sergio Leone’s gritty Italian Westerns. The instrument’s melodious wheeze helped conjure the uncomfortable emptiness — and the imminent threat of violence — that graced Leone’s great period masterpieces, and it does the same for Clinic, even if the open spaces in Clinic’s songs are covered with concrete, not sagebrush. "When we started it was with the idea of incorporating unusual instruments and rhythms into our sound," says singer/keyboardist/guitarist Blackburn, speaking over the phone from a previous tour stop in New York City. "The melodica was a good choice for us, because it really can create a mood from a few simple notes, and yet it’s not been overused, so it hasn’t become a cliché."

When Clinic appeared at the Paradise a week ago Tuesday, the pure adrenal rush and the volume of live performance knocked that delicate balance out of whack. Their punk roots showed more plainly in the guitars that teetered on feedback and gnashed through songs, competing with hyperamplified bass. Centerpieces like "Country Mile" held up, its melodica notes twisting slowly in the sonic breeze. But there is something perfunctory about their drag-race-paced live set that blunts the more hair-raising details of their recordings.

Still, it’s no exaggeration to call this band’s angstful, alienated soundtrack to modern life visionary. "We do feel like the tension and pace in our music is part and parcel of what’s going on in the world around us, with the constant barrage of people and information flying about," Blackburn says. Each sonic texture — from Blackburn’s pensive mumble to the fuzzy surf guitar lines, which are also part of Morricone’s palette, to the chug and huff of the circular rhythms that echo Philip Glass — is as carefully laid on as an artist’s brushstoke. And with their on-stage costume of surgical scrubs and masks, Clinic announce that they are conceptual artists as well as musicians. Or at least that they’re aware of Devo, who flaunted their democracy with workman’s coveralls and flowerpot hats.

Although Winchester Cathedral does occasionally relax, taking on the character of what Blackburn describes as " ’60s easy-listening music" in "Falstaff" and generating a kind of shimmering lonesome beauty in "Anne" (which also maintained its warmth on stage), Blackburn admits that Clinic are out to make listeners twitch. "There is a momentum in our songs that gives them a sense of urgency. It’s in the way the guitar and the keyboards will repeat and the rhythm keeps pushing ahead, so it’s almost as if they were nagging. It keeps the ear from becoming too relaxed. Sometime we use loops as well, and the idea is that the repetition of certain sounds takes on a life of its own, like horns in a traffic jam or cars roaring by on a freeway."

Blackburn also thinks of his voice as a rhythm instrument. "That way the vocals become more catchy. They pull you along with them into the song. Often how I sing is more important than what I sing, though in ‘Anne’ and ‘Falstaff’ on this album, the lyrics also help to create a mood.

"We’ve always believed in staying true to our own ideas, so when the Grammy nomination came about and our last album got so much attention, we were surprised, but we didn’t get carried away. We know what Clinic is, and no outside forces are likely to ever make us change."

Issue Date: November 19 - 25, 2004
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