I’ve reached a point in my life where many of the bands that were bright, young, and promising when I was in my early twenties have become not so bright, young, or promising anymore. Over the past couple years, I’ve reviewed bad to middling albums by such ex-wunderkinds as Asobi Seksu and The Concretes. Aside from sharing the same lukewarm space in contemporary rock journalism’s phantom zone, both artists made a name for themselves with striking debut albums that embraced very particular styles and then proceeded to define their careers by systematically watering their respective sounds down beyond the point of recognition.
If Clinic isn’t a poster child for this phenomenon, I don’t know who else is. I couldn’t even tell you the last time I thought about this band, let alone put on one of their albums. They flew too close to the sun on Internal Wrangler, having “utterly mastered their art,” just one album and a few EPs into their career; there wasn’t much for them to do but attempt to reproduce their debut’s success or (d)evolve into something ultimately less interesting than what they started out as. Listening to Clinic’s discography in succession, you can track the steady degeneration from IW’s cohesive, self-assured unpredictability to Free Reign’s watery sonic gruel.
Still, a couple songs manage to stand out. On “Seesaw,” Carl Turney beats his snare drum like it owes him money, creating a jarring gunshot rhythm that complements Hartley’s punky guitar riff. Of their more motorik offerings, “King Kong” stands the tallest, humming along on a driving, anxious beat until, at a moment’s notice, it dissolves into a 7-second glitch patch that sounds like a skipping CD. The best of what remains is competent yet staid, like album opener “Misty,” which lays hazy psych effects over a gentle Suicide synth pulse and leaves Ade Blackburn’s sedated moan to loll over the soupy mixture. The worst, like the soppy “For the Season,” crawl by with an almost agonizing sluggishness. The fact that the album features some of the longest tracks the band has recorded to date doesn’t help the situation much, either.
It’s not as if Clinic has lost its ability to surprise us. The songs that make up Free Reign are perhaps some of the most slippery and mercurial of their career. It’s just that the surprises that they pack rarely amount to much of interest. Despite the variety of the album’s contents, there’s an oppressiveness to it that not even TMT-approved electronic savant Daniel Lopatin’s mixing can fully dispel. Despite their best efforts, Free Reign marks just another step in Clinic’s journey to unfortunately become even more forgettable.