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Fantasy Island Ed Power , October 21st, 2021 08:46

A 'knotty sweatbox' of an album, Clinic's latest somehow captures the feeling of its times, finds Ed Power

Everyone seems to be rocketing into high orbit nowadays, whether it’s William Shatner, Tom Cruise, or the cast of a forthcoming Russian thriller filmed on the International Space Station. But a case can be made that analogue avant-gardists Clinic got there first and have spent the twenty years since their debut album Internal Wrangler out among the stars in interstellar overdrive.

Fuelled by vintage keyboards and sundry sonic bric-a-brac often obtained at junkyard sales, the Liverpool nonconformists are on an open-ended mission to explore strange new genres. And to seek out new life in the uncharted deep space between indie, electronica, krautrock, and psychedelia.

Along the way, they’ve staked out a niche as an underground act with big ideas. With their penchant for identikit face-masks, they’ve critiqued the stereotype of the rock band as a monument to the ego of the lead singer. How do you lionise the front person when everyone looks the same?

On 2019’s Wheeltappers and Shunters they meanwhile interrogated ‘Britishness’ in the post-Brexit paradigm where soggy national myths have been weaponised as modern-day prejudices. Or, as perpetually disconsolate vocalist Ade Blackburn put it on ‘Complex’, “the good old days, the good old ways … flags are flying”.

Brexit angst is conspicuously absent from the follow-up, Fantasy Island. It’s a concept record where the concept is that there is no concept. In its lyrics and sonic landscape the project is ever-shifting. From vintage disco to acid pop via lo-fi funk, the tectonic plates are in perpetual flux. It is scattershot with a vengeance.

It’s also great fun when it wants to be. Lurching forward on a vast, wobbling groove, ‘Take A Chance’ is a psychedelic bopper pitched between T-Rex and the Wirral psychedelia of The Coral. And on ‘Refractions (In The Rain)’, a huge squelching bass is paired with BBC Radiophonic Workshop pings and parps.

“People that play the music … join the people that play the music,’ chants Blackburn. The lyrics come off as self-consciously banal. Yet they are elevated by the shamanistic zeal with which Blackburn wraps his mouth around the consonants.

Blackburn can croon, too. On ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’ (one of two precipitation-themed tunes) he sounds like an egg-and-chips Scott Walker as he gazes out at a downpour through the windows of a glum greasy-spoon.

Clinic have always been regarded as underdogs so it’s easy to forget how much they accomplished early in their career. They toured with Radiohead while their second long-player, 2002’s Walking With Thee, was nominated for a Best Alternative Album Grammy. They ultimately lost to Coldplay. Fantasy Island is, by contrast, unlikely to cause Chris Martin too many lost nights (unless the Beatles-do-the-Wicker Man title track pops up on a playlist just before he’s due to to go bed).

Clinic’s ninth album is a knotty sweatbox, brimming with humour yet often in conflict with itself. Does it want to be zany or profound? Silly or scary? And when the band plunge into the Kraftwerk-on-Mersey monotone of ‘Fine Dining’, are they joking or gazing into the abyss?

“Fine dining, fine dining,” deadpans Blackburn, as if it’s all a tragic skit. And then he sings “all into the void all, into the void”. Just like that, the song has passed into a place beyond light and hope: from end of the pier to the end of the universe.

But maybe that fog of confusion is the point. And perhaps the LP has a message after all. These are chaotic times. Often it is hard to know if we should laugh, sob, take refuge, or embrace the madness. And with Fantasy Island Clinic have held up a mirror to this, our post-reality reality. It’s simultaneously unnerving and feel-good, witty and disconsolate. And though recorded two years ago, somehow it captures the essence of what it is to be a conscious entity negotiating the world in 2021.