Who are those masked men?



October 11, 2002



A few months back, during a sold-out show at the Abbey Pub, the Liverpool quartet Clinic took the stage bathed in blue light and concealed behind surgical scrubs and operating masks. An aura of mystery hung in the air.

The group proceeded to deliver a short but hypnotic set, more than justifying its vaunted reputation in the indie-rock world and the many comparisons it has garnered to fellow art-rockers Radiohead. The minor-key drones, oddly twisted melodies, and oblique lyrical ruminations about vultures and shadows contributed to the sense of unease. But the music also was propulsive and compelling, riding a groove that was part Bo Diddley (via the Velvet Underground) and part amped-up tribal rhythm (a la the legendary Krautrock band Can).

"I believe in harmony/I believe in Christmas Eve," guitarist/vocalist Ade Blackburn sang in "Harmony," one of the most indelible tunes from the band's third and best album, "Walking With Thee." But the moody sounds percolating behind him conveyed anything but good will to all men.

Clinic, Apples In Stereo, The Standard

* 11:30 p.m. Saturday
* Metro, 3730 N. Clark
* $15
* (312) 559-1212

"We always put the songs together to have sort of like a lighter side to them and a darker side," Blackburn says in his thick Liverpuddlian accent. "And with the rhythmical side of the songs, it's something that you could dance to, and that's quite confusing, as well.

"But it's also the point!"

No wonder the group has been so widely hailed by critics. What is unusual, however, is that the band is being aggressively courted by several major labels in America. "It surprises me because I don't think what we're doing is commercial at all, although I think it should be," Blackburn says. "But the rock underground right now is probably the best it's been for quite a few years. And I suppose the Strokes and the White Stripes are proving that you can sell quite a few records."

Dense and evocative, Clinic's sound is based on the enduring power of those creepy psychedelic drones, but the foreboding noise is also nicely augmented by memorable hooks delivered via melodica, clarinet and electric piano. The churning guitars and chanted vocals are slightly buried in the mix, rewarding listeners who trouble to dig for them.

"What we're doing is quite droney, but it's also pop music," Blackburn says. "We want a hook but we also want something that's got an edge to it. The first album is probably more garage-based, with slightly more of a distorted sound to it, whereas I would say this album is more immediate. There's always a sort of punk basis to the guitars, which you could say is rooted in things like Captain Beefheart or the Velvets. But we're trying to use that in an inventive way that isn't sort of a cliched indie sound."

As for the sinister surgeon's shtick, Blackburn chuckles. "That's got far more attraction than just four blokes wearing jeans and T-shirts," he says. Still and all, I wouldn't go anywhere near any of these lads if he had a scalpel in his hand.

It's a much sunnier brand of psychedelic rock that's offered up by Denver's Apples In Stereo. When we last heard from bandleader Robert Schneider and his mates, they were singing the praises of the Powerpuff Girls, helping them battle a giant monster and save the world before bedtime on a tribute record and accompanying video for Cartoon Network.

With the Olivia Tremor Control splintered into several different side projects and Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel sadly missing in action since 1998's brilliant "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," the Apples In Stereo stand as the most active and successful of the Elephant 6 Bands, the collective of ambitious and fabulously creative psychedelic popsters who often performed on each other's records and promoted each other as successfully as the Beats in their heyday.

If you buy that analogy, Schneider was the Allen Ginsberg of the group, the man who held it all together. And if he was never the most talented among a very talented bunch, he was certainly the most pleasant and industrious.

Those traits continue to shine forth on the new "Velocity of Sound," the quartet's sixth album (if you count 2000's "Live In Chicago").

Schneider's Beach Boys obsession remains in full effect, but after the High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan, he is arguably the most talented of the countless Brian Wilson disciples in the psychedelic-pop/indie-rock underground. Tunes such as "Please," "Rainfall" and the wonderfully bouncy garage-rocker "She's Telling Lies" explode from the speakers in gleeful bursts of chiming guitars, layered harmonies and jangling tambourines.

Crank it up and try to suppress that smile or resist humming along. I dare you.

* * *

Though it is certainly not the movie the band deserves (and will not be the last film on the group--another is already in the works), the 50-minute documentary Graceful Swans of Never--The Smashing Pumpkins is nonetheless of interest to hard-core fans, especially those in Chicago, since it is full of familiar sights and faces in its rather superficial telling of the Pumpkins' story.

The movie made its local debut at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, a few months ago as part of the Sound Unseen Roadtrip. Now it's returning for a longer engagement starting today (6:30 and 8 p.m.) with additional showings Saturday (4:30 and 8 p.m.), Sunday (4:30 and 6 p.m.), Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (6:30 and 8 p.m.) and Thursday (8 p.m. only). Tickets are $8; $4 for Film Center members. For more information, call (312) 846-2600 or visit www.siskelfilmcenter.org.