Winchester Cathedral

(Domino; 2004)

By Scott Reid | 25 August 2004

The first news of Clinic's third record proclaimed it would be a drastically different and "less dark" venture for the group--one which would finally have the Liverpool four-piece moving past an approach that, judging by the sound of 2002's Walking With Thee, they'd become a little too comfortable with. But it's no easy task to create something altogether new with such a minimal and traditional formula, especially with a band that had spent the majority of its time fine-tuning as original a version of it they could muster--birthed by their debut EPs and perfected by their incredible debut, Internal Wrangler (2000).

Variety, as we'd soon find out, would never be a pressing issue. The guitars, bass, drum and melodica (and, sometimes, keys) either come fast and claustrophobically mixed, like "White Light/White Heat" on a more hyperactive high, or hypnotized by its own mid-tempo repetitions. Between the two stands a sizeable gap -- not so much in terms of the tempo as much as the feel or approach to each -- that the group would rarely explore to any great extent. Yet, Clinic has been able to temporarily transform themselves by shifting even a single instrument to the forefront, like the organ that softly propels "Distortions" past all their other accomplishments, standing alone in not only its feel, but also in its accessibility, working in ways that far surpass their otherwise esoteric leanings.

What makes Winchester Cathedral stick out amongst their previous works, and make it their best release since Internal Wrangler, is a willingness to explore, albeit briefly, the previously malnourished middle ground between their seemingly two-speed approach. We still get a heavy dose of the usual Clinic fare, of course, and it just wouldn't be a great Clinic album without it; say all you want about a band shamelessly reusing a fine-tuned formula, but this is inarguably a winning one, and one that clearly requires more than just mindless repetition to keep as interesting as it has been, even over just two records and a series of EPs.

To accomplish this, they've decided to sporadically augment their sound instead of drastically transforming it. Winchester manages to also recapture some of the raw intensity that was also sorely missing from most of WWTand is the album that should have arrived second, calming our fears that one of the UK's greatest contemporary rock hopes could accomplish this before heading back to what is, for all intents and purposes, an enjoyable but unfulfilling rerun.Winchester does at least mingle with a few new influences, even if it does still ultimately prefer the familiar confines of its own past.

"Country Mile" and "Circle of Fifths" kick off the record on more familiar ground; "Mile" opens with a series of escalating beeps and wind chimes, quickly kicking into gear with a passable "Harmony"-meets-"Walking With Thee" melody. "Fifths" continues to create something special with the same tools, though with a superior melody and an incredible climax near its end with double-tracked vocals, a steadily beating piano and a wonderfully sinister lead guitar line. "Anne" follows, and, though not a drastic change, its surprisingly accessible chorus and assiduous bassline manage to extract a surprising amount from the lax, repetitive melody.

While "The Magician" finds the band falling back into old habits like a junkie violently relapsing after a half-assed attempt at rehab (play it and "The Return of Evil Bill" back to back), "Vertical Takeoff in Egypt"--the first of the album's two instrumentals--is discontent in merely rehashing Wrangler's highlights. "Takeoff" seems invigorated by the lack of vocals, using its focus on the blisteringly intense instrumentation (built around, as its title might give away, a Mideastern riff) to create one of the record's most unpredictable tracks, never simply relying on adding a melodica line to buy time. "Home" follows, and its spacious production finally begins to bring the group beyond the black-and-white static they've been barraging us with since their EPs. In most respects, it isn't so much more different from "Mr. Moonlight" than "Magician" is from "Bill," but whereas "Moonlight" feels smothered, "Home" -- spared such a restricting approach -- is given enough room to breathe.

Few tracks continue in the relaxed ambition of "Home," though what we do get is equally impressive. "Falstaff," probably the album's greatest accomplishment, takes their "Come Into Our Room"/"Earth Angel" tempo and adds a heavy '60s pop/R&B atmosphere that fits the group much better than you might think it would. The song's instrumental coda, much like "Home's" bridge, smacks of a Pet Sounds production influence -- the melody itself even arguably reminiscent of something from Wild Honey, especially the beautiful outro, which could only be bettered by the four and five part harmonies that had lifted Honey's musical simplicity into another stratosphere altogether. Then there's "Fingers," which borrows "Circle of Fifth's" piano riff and builds one hell of an instrumental closer out of it; the bassline and guitar lead once again giving the track the same kind of vitality that had propelled "Circle," even without the vocal melody backing it up. Like "Takeoff" -- or the group's previous instrumentals for that matter--the cut benefits greatly from a different focal point: in both cases, more on the rhythm and arrangement of its repeated progression than linking verse to chorus and back to verse again.

The rest of what constitutes Winchester Cathedral could easily be deemed "more of the same," though most is of pretty high calibre. "Wdyyd's" fierce attack follows in the same vein as "Pet Eunuch" and "D.T."; "August" is another of the finer retreads, its melodica solo even gleefully mimicking the e-bow in R.E.M.'s "E-Bow the Letter"; "Thank You (For Living)" is perhaps the album's only completely disposable cut--the only worthwhile moment being a two-second post-chorus/pre-verse hook that is still nowhere near enough to save the song from being superfluous, even for a Clinic record. Meanwhile, "The Majestic, No. 2" suffers slightly from its unfortunately detracting vocal treatment (a vibrato/chorus-type effect), which is ironically the only thing separating it from their other slow burning, mid-tempo numbers.

It's a fitting reminder of what makes Winchester work so well when the group attempts to expand their sound and why it can sound so by rote when it doesn't. But even Wrangler depended on its incredible highs to make up for its lack of variety, and, as a whole, Winchester manages to pull out enough surprises from its sleeves to bounce back from its predictable lows. More importantly, however, it succeeds in giving at least some promise for the group's future--which is perhaps the most significant thing thing that Walking With Thee had failed to do.