Clinic should be a national institution by now. On to their eighth album, Ade Blackburn and his troops are still growing musically. Wheeltappers & Shunters, their first in seven years, reveals more of a humorous side to their work and an ever widening sonic palette, without ever compromising the approach that has made them such an instantly recognisable band. They exorcise this particular seven year itch with homage to a 1970s ITV show presented by Bernard Manning.
Rose-tinted spectacles are not the order of the day, however. The term ‘wheeltappers and shunters’ was coined by the Liverpool quartet for any musical idea deemed to be a bit faux, a bit too ‘nice’ – and as a consequence any material fitting that description here is swiftly dealt with. Again the approach is economical – 12 songs in just 26 minutes – but such is the intensity of expression that the listener won’t notice.
If anything the humour makes Clinic sound even more sinister, like a moment’s respite in a horror film before the doing of a particularly grisly deed. So it is that Ade Blackburn’s forced jollity at the fun of the fair on Laughing Cavalier feels like an English counterpart to American Horror Story, with a telling combination of dark yet traditional laughs. When the hissing and whispering intro to Complex appears, the listener is stopped cold, a chill breeze blowing across what might have been an idyllic picnic.
Wheeltappers & Shunters goes heavy on the dubby bass for songs like Mirage, which boasts a rock solid, booming undercarriage, while Flying Fish could easily have had a brush with the production desk of Adrian Sherwood.
Yet this remains instantly recognisable as a Clinic album. With Blackburn’s tense, gritty vocals, how could it be otherwise? The colourful psychedelia surrounding them is as much late-1960s as it is now, but fits really well in both contexts. Rubber Bullets is the ideal example, a macabre waltz-like tune whose combination of brief wistfulness and free fantasy, realised in a swirling sign-off, successfully displaces the mind.
With each album Clinic grow in substance and intrigue. There has always been a strong thread of barely concealed anger and menace running through their music, but in earlier albums it has tended to take on a monochrome form. The last few records have seen them experimenting successfully with dashes of vivid colour, spinning bass lines towards the dubby area of the spectrum and enjoying a laugh at theirs and others’ expense.
Wheeltappers & Shunters continues the trend, with music of colour, mixing its cold shivers with moments of unexpected charm. Hopefully Ade Blackburn has been busy in the seven years away, and the wait for album number nine will be short. Clinic’s increasingly colourful music, delivered with surgical precision and minimum of fuss, is likely to bring them a whole new set of fans. In doing so it will hopefully raise their standing from undervalued British musical treasures.