In the past few years, indie music has rediscovered the wonders of distortion, such as with the post-rock Canadian Invasion and Brooklyn’s indie-dance scene. But, as in so many other things musical, the British were there first, and not just with Radiohead, but also with the distorted alt-country of the other quartet from Liverpool, Clinic. On their fourth studio album, Visitations, the band keeps riding the trail they first blazed with 2000’s Internal Wrangler, combining a driving, gothic beat with fuzzy guitars, organ-ic keys, and Ade Blackburn’s clenched-teeth vocals.
Instead of just relying on distortion like an experimental band, Clinic lays it upon about the last thing you’d expect (especially from a British band): country/western guitars. The higher-tone keyboards fill the upper-pitch place left empty by the guitar alterations, providing a nice counter-point to the firm but driving drums-and-bass backbeat. Blackburn’s voice itself feels strange, but instead of coming over as some kind of outlandish affectation, it is right in tune with the overall sound. The alt-road music on Visitations is a unique and interesting mix of hillbilly-ish rock, pitched synth, and heavy, but straightforward, distortion.
The record starts off strong, with probably its most "backwoods on acid" track, "Family". While the second half of the following "Animal/Human" employs an incredible mix of organ synth and wa-wa guitar, the former, "Animal", half is too stripped down for a band like Clinic. Visitations is at its most exuberant with the jangly guitars and jungle drumming of "Paradise" (the first single) and the following "Children of Kellogg", with the distortion keeping things interesting. Without the jangle, the second single, "Harvest (Within You)" is interesting without being fun, more a curiosity than a song.
Clinic can follow a darker path as well, such as on the sadder "Jigsaw Man", whose great guitars and harmonica-like piano unfortunately also make it the one track where Blackburn’s gritted vocals really feel misplaced. The latest single, the preceding "If You Could Read Your Mind", is gothic, driving road-rock, but also definitely get-into-able. Generally, the great songs on Visitations are great because of their guitar, while the merely good songs find their quality in their keyboards, such as with the simple "Paradise", the nice-but-not-very-memorable "The New Seeker", and the album’s slightly dragging title track.
If there’s a knock on Clinic, it’s that the band hasn’t grown a great deal since opening up for Radiohead in 2001. Visitations feels a bit harder than prior releases, and the distortion’s been pushed up a little more, but the band hasn’t really breaking any new ground. Except that the band has been breaking new ground, as for so long they sounded “like no other band” (as their website once said). Today, bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah utilize Clinic’s honest distortion (and CYHSY singer Alec Ounsworth’s vocal stylings are clearly in debt to Ade Blackburn among others), and their indie-road/alt-country ways can be heard in bands like Ten Kens. Perhaps the surgical masks Clinic is known to wear for all photoshoots and performances have kept their condition from spreading, but it’s out now – and the boys from Liverpool still do it best.