Back for album number nine, Clinic remain as fiercely idiosyncratic and uncompromisingly odd as they did on their debut album, over twenty years ago. Fantasy Island, according to the press release, sees the band explore the themes of time, music and entertainment and going “…funky disco, broadening their sonic palette with the addition of several new gadgets including an electronic acid bass machine, a 1970s cocktail rhythm unit, a Casio digital horn and space drum.”Clinic are one of those rare bands who’ve managed to constantly evolve and develop their sound, so that each new album feels like a progression, yet all the while sounding exactly like themselves and no one else. So whatever new gadgets they might’ve recently absorbed into the Clinic melange, even if they recorded an album using only an old tin can and a junk shop ukulele, it would still be instantly recognisable as a Clinic album.
Much of the inspiration for their last outing, 2019’s acerbically absurdist Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, was drawn from the cultural forces that drove the Brexit vote. It saw the band exploring patriotic fervour, misty-eyed nostalgia and political hand-waving from a perspective often glossed-over in contemporary discourse – Great Britain’s hinterland of forgotten towns, villages and quiet backwaters which have their roots deep in our mediaeval past. So it doesn’t require much of a leap to assume that the titular ‘Fantasy Island’ is a little closer to home than we’d like to believe. As the lyrics to opening salvo, ‘The Lamplighter’ mockingly remind us, we’re “…still clinging on at the edge of the world”, before segueing into a final rant, “Whatever they tell you, whatever they sell you, they were wrong / In time of reflection all the deceptions will be gone / Now look to the new day, look for a new way, we were robbed.”
On hearing that the band had shrunk from a four to a two-piece – consisting solely of Ade Blackburn and Jonathan Hartley – I was concerned they might have downsized their sound as well, but if anything, the opposite is true. In contrast to the garage punk aesthetic employed on some earlier releases, Fantasy Island is a masterclass in atmosphere and vibe. The midway interlude, ‘On the Other Side’ combines vintage drum machines, samples from a retro self-help tape and an exquisitely lugubrious saxophone straight out of film-noir to welcome us, like nervous spectators at a peep show peering behind the curtain, to the second half of our voyage round Fantasy Island.
This sultry atmosphere doesn’t last long as side two launches into the shouty title track. Reminiscent of the band’s punkier days, it motors along on a Krautrock beat with chugging guitars and Ade Blackburn utilising every aspect of his vocal range, from rabid bark to throaty whisper, to non-verbal yelps, which are filtered through yet another analogue box of tricks, transforming him from Mark E Smith into a chipmunk at the twist of a dial. A track that sounds like it was as much fun to record as it is to listen. A cover of Ann Peebles’ soul classic, ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’ takes us back into the cocktail lounge, as Blackburn unveils yet another vocal style – a heretofore unheard Jarvis Cocker-esque croon. As sighing synths rise to a climax, it’s impossible not to picture Clinic as the house band on the cruise ship of fools, performing on a smoky stage in front of gold lamé curtains while above deck, chaos reigns.
Trailblazing in many ways, Clinic were wearing face masks long, long before the pandemic struck. Since their earliest days as a four-piece, the band performed in identical costumes – partly as a way of deconstructing the traditional rock’n’roll hierarchy that elevates the lead singer – and just for a bit of a laugh. Whether they knew then they’d still be doing it twenty years later, the band have retained an air of mystique, along with a small but dedicated fanbase. It’s hard to say if Fantasy Island will garner them any new fans – it represents a strange offering for anyone not already familiar with Clinic’s quirky internal logic. But with post-punk and psychedelia currently flavour du jour, and equally oddball bands enjoying a significant moment, maybe Clinic will find a new audience.