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Clinically sane

Masked art-rock combo Clinic drone along to a groove

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It's hard being loved by everybody. Just ask Clinic, the drab art-rock combo from Liverpool, England. Not only has the group's name been dropped by Radiohead (who took the band on tour with them) and other members of the Brit-rock elite, but music magazines on both sides of the Atlantic have hyped Clinic as one of the best new bands of this year.

The quartet first achieved notoriety for the eclectic mix of psychedelia and garage rock on its debut album, last year's Internal Wrangler. Now with its new album, Walking With Thee, Clinic sets about distinguishing itself as more than "the band Radiohead likes." Says the group's singer and guitarist, Ade Blackburn, "If we sounded anything like Radiohead, or if we relied on them for any reason, it would be different, but what we've done is completely separate and stands off on its own."

Indeed, Clinic's songs sound nothing like those of their superstar tour mates. The group prefers the droning repetition of krautrock pioneers Can and Kraftwerk to anything that sounds like Radiohead. Borrowing heavily from these influences, Clinic uses mantric percussion and sinister guitar lines to create a dismal sonic atmosphere for the listener. Almost all the songs on Walking With Thee are focused upon a simple pattern established by the drums and bass. "We never start off with four chords and some lyrics -- we usually start from the rhythm of the song. In that way, a lot of it will be focused on one groove or chord," Blackburn says. "That just means you've got more freedom and you haven't got the straightjacket of the usual verse-chorus way of putting songs together."

Once Clinic establishes this rhythmic pattern for a song, the group proceeds to drive that groove into the ground, embellishing it with jangling guitars, eerie keyboards and barely audible vocal mumblings. Blackburn, who often sounds as though he's chanting his songs through a walkie-talkie, chooses to keep his vocals low and unintelligible to contradict the notion that singing must always take center stage. Frequently, Blackburn's voice is used more as an instrument than as a lyrical medium. The result pounds the listener's head with a hypnotic rhythm that at the same time is dreary and quite danceable.

"I hate when vocals are out in front and the music can just be doing any old crap in the background," Blackburn says. "On roughly half the songs, the words are used in a more rhythmic way, with some words chosen just for their sound."

Clinic's use of lonely harmonica and eerie marimba only adds to the bleak atmosphere of the tunes. "Technically, we're far from being great at even playing guitars," Blackburn says, "but just using any different instruments is a lot fresher. Even if you can't play an instrument very well, usually the simplest ideas are the best."

In case audiences for Clinic's current U.S. tour don't find the music to be bizarre enough, the band is sure to further create a weird atmosphere through its use of vivid scenery and odd costumes. Clinic often wears surgical masks at photo shoots and gigs to help them stand as much visually as they do musically. However, they plan to update their creepy outfits as to not tire fans by recycling the same old schtick.

"We're gonna have the same sort of costumes we wore before, but with a different slant to it, which we're keeping a bit secret," Blackburn says. However, he wants to make sure that these masks are not seen as mere publicity stunts. "What we felt was that [the mask-wearing] could become too gimmicky or too tired if it was just done in the same way each time. We felt that if we could add things to it -- generally the whole visual side of doing a gig -- that it's something good enough for us to continue."

The prolific foursome is already demoing new songs for its third release. After a expansive world tour is complete, Clinic has plans to go back into the studio. "We just continually keep doing new songs," Blackburn says. "I think it's good to just keep recording as much as possible."

For a band that's so damn bleak, Clinic's future is looking pretty bright.

Clinic plays Wed., March 13, at the Echo Lounge, 551 Flat Shoals Ave. Departure Lounge and The Close open. $10 advance/ $12 day of show. Doors open at 9 p.m. www.echostatic.com/echolounge. 404-681-3600.

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