Clinic lives in your nightmares. It creeps under your bed, reaching out occasionally to run a single finger down your back, manifesting your deepest fears from whatever dark shapeless primordial ooze it originated. It crawls next to your face, its single-slit surgical mask an inch from your ear as it readies a blood-curdling scream, and then … a whisper and a grin. This is the heart and soul of great horror, the true expressionist meat that churns behind Hitchcock and Argento, an unintelligible mess that subtly taps into the base instincts to run and hide and the human weakness of frozen nerves.
Clinic attained horrific perfection with their 2000 debut masterpiece Internal Wrangler, a minimalist smash of the Velvet Underground, Can, Wire, the Goblins, and Ennio Morricone, and the band remains one of the few today whose sound is unique. Unfortunately, although follow-up Walking With Thee showed musical development in both performance and songwriting, the band’s third, Winchester Cathedral, is highly lacking in progress. Clinic remains eerie as ever on the new release, and the semi-sheen of Walking (which in Clinic terms means it wasn’t recorded with a broken mike floating in toilet water) is charmingly replaced with a garage aesthetic more extreme even than Wrangler‘s. However, band members’ famed surgical concert get-ups sadly bring to mind KISS, not with respect to their sound but in the fear that Clinic is at risk of stylistic stagnation.
Much of what made Clinic groundbreaking has become overused. Melodica and clarinet solos that felt fresh in the past are abused for the thousandth time here, and many of them sound mandatory rather than interesting. Carl Turney’s superbly crazed percussion is often reduced to minimalist syncopation, which worked fine on old greats like “Second Line” but crust over on the new album. Oh, and let’s not forget Ade Blackburn’s wonderfully creepy “Let’s kick Thom Yorke repeatedly in the balls” vocals. Lyrics are even harder to decipher on Winchester than on previous works, which would be fine in the name of art if Blackburn could vary his rhythms and melodies. Clinic was cutting-edge a few years ago, and it’s probably damn-near impossible for Blackburn to change a formula that’s worked so beautifully before. But sadly, for the first time in the band’s career, I actually find the singing boring.
But just because Winchester Cathedral is formulaic (if you can call it that) does not mean it’s lousy. Some songs, particularly the feminine jazz shoo-bop of “Falstaff,” the mellow shuffle in “Home,” and the warm tension of “The Majestic #2,” are frankly quite awesome. The horror soundtrack piano on “Circle Of Fifths” is trademark Clinic dread, but the manic syncopated drive found on this track is repeated ad nauseum on other songs like “The Magician,” “Vertical Take Off In Egypt” and “Thank You (For Living).” These are all good pieces separately, but together they make the album sound almost homogenous.
I hate to be so critical of Clinic. They are a wonderful and inventive voice in a field of poseurs, and for that alone they receive countless props. But Winchester Cathedral makes me worry for their future. If they cannot evolve, chances are their next album will sound like self-parody, and that would be a heart-breaking end to such an excellent band. In the meantime, I can always just spin Internal Wrangler a thousand times in my stereo. Lucky for me, masterpieces never grow old.