Review Summary: Feedback-heads and hell-dwellers rejoice!
God, nothing bites at the base of my brainstem like a good squeal of feedback before some gibbering neurotic shrieks his hell-prophecies right through the center of my eardrum. No doubt, such a visceral thrill isn’t any kind of expensive, doesn’t require any kind of mental investment to appreciate, just a fuck-ugly stab through the senses that just resonates
. And these thrills have had just as much payoff and have been played way cheaper than Sprain is doing. Indeed, the use of noise rock reads more as an art-house evisceration of the straightforward and the decipherable on their sophomore release, the ponderously and improbably-titled The Lamb as Effigy or Three Hundred and Fifty XOXOXOS for a Spark Union with My Darling Divine
. The mania of the title, like a haphazard blood-scrawl on the wall after a 3 day binge on dissociatives already feels both unhinged and tremendously ambitious. And after only the barest skimming of this thing, with all its artsy atonal strings, organ drones, flirtations with noise and ambience and the most dynamic noise-rock vocal performance in recent memory it’s pretty clear that Sprain are shooting for absolute magnum opus-status, and if their ambition occasionally outstrips their sense of restraint, they’ve made something here that might well stand as one of the great latter-day noise rock opuses.
I’m deeply wary of building too much hype for myself on anything, too many albums have been seized on as the next big thing only to have the staying power of a meth head who’s just heard there’s a pile of unguarded scrap metal two blocks down. So I approach this with the fear that the ambition with which this group is tackling their subject is sure to lead to a stumble here or there, if not an out-and-out pitfall. In the face of all this ambition, we kinda want them to succeed, to make something that will explode all our preconceived ideas about what a style can be. After all, we’re talking about a 97 minute Leviathan built up on the bones of what’s been called noise rock up to this point, a runtime that’s damn audacious when its coming from such avant-veterans as Swans, let alone this band of upstarts. What Sprain has attempted here, and what I think they've succeeded at, is that great achievement of taking a style to its limits, then drawing out and pushing those limits into something that begins to be something that justifies itself as truly new
. That it's doing so with elements we already know and love doesn't detract what this thing really is.
Here, Sprain has imagined noise rock less as a genre constraint and more as the beams and girders holding up their fever-dream visions, to the point that as you get into the monolithic delerium of Margin For Error, you almost feel duped by the straightforward Man Proposes, God Disposes. They’re frantic, they’re pissed off, noise riddled slabs of stop-start ranting and raving and spidery guitars, all punctuated and punched-up by those excellent
squeals of feedback and the build of Alex Kent's voice from a dissociated mumble to a frantic yowl. It's all utter grime delivered with big A Art in mind, much the same as the Thin Black Duke's been getting up to since his heyday. And if this was all the album was going to be, it would be a strong contender for many year-end lists. Then Privilege of Being comes up, something of a warning sign that this isn’t all that’s going to be on the plate. Ambient creaks and acoustic arpeggios and chimes and god damn
the feedback, I don’t think I’ve mentioned it enough yet, all like a dripping, smoking amuse-bouche for the plunge into art-school-kid hell that’s going to follow.
And after all the bounty of these limit-experience excursions well, damn
, we might think, Margin of Error better have one hell of a payoff to justify that twenty-four minute length there
. Yes of course, but you’ve got all the hell you can shake a cross at in that endless stretch of organ drones and Jamie-Stewart-esque moaning as the piece ebbs and flows and grows into something both monstrous and majestic. It’s a claustrophobic, oppressive place to be in for any amount of time, and its an atmosphere that's so slowly metastasizing it gets difficult to breathe. When the big moment arrives, as we’ve all been hoping it will, it's a breath of air, that while no doubt excellent, somehow falls just slightly short of everything it’s promised up to now. It’s terrifying and gorgeous, it’s bleak and brutal and edifying and a fine reward for all our patience with this track, but here it may begin to be felt that a hair’s worth of restraint might have served the piece better. But of course, restraint isn’t ever going to be the name of the game on this album. The sheer excess and self-indulgence that this thing reeks with is damn-near intoxicating on its own. And if there’s a problem to be found with the album, as glorious as it is, it’s exemplified here on Margin of Error: it occasionally doesn't seem to live up to the promise of that excess. When on God, Or Whatever You Call It opens with its insane skronk noodling for the better part of two minutes before launching into some explosive sadomasochist memoir, eventually, slowly, sputtering out and dying in a sobbing, moaning heap over the course of the next 15 minutes, it reads as supremely confrontational, like you’re being dared to keep subjecting yourself to this, like a step into a shared nightmare for which the end is a hazy and indistinct glow that could be beautiful, god or whatever you call it, or hell.
Earlier on, I called Alex Kent’s vocal performance the most dynamic in recent memory and I absolutely stick to that assertion. Whether or not that’s going to appeal to the wide variety of listeners is very much a matter of opinion, as much like Jamie Stewart, Alex’s vocals are very much a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, ranging from a quavering whisper to a throat shredding shriek to a more staid, listless murmur. Dynamic then, in the sense that there’s an incredible range to the levels and timbres Kent’s relying on, from the gradual descent into the mental maelstrom that is Man Proposes, God Disposes to the gibbering sobs and howls on the final minutes of the album. He’s perhaps at his most immediately satisfying when he’s shouting out his absolute preacher-in-the-house-of-fuck shrieking hellsermons, but there’s a hell of a lot of nightmare to plumb and Alex is working with a damn extensive set of tools in his voice-box. The other members are all bringing their wild screeching, clanging symbols and gongs and chimes, spidery guitars and out-of-body organs into the fore, on the longer tracks supplanting Kent for much of their length as they carefully weave their atmospheres, their basement corners, their ecstatic breaks into the open air, all less a backing for Kent and more a set of instruments among his, all pushing and pulling to the back and fore.
So alright, if it doesn’t always
play like they clearly want it to (the long tracks, confrontational and uncompromising as they are, are, only in rare passages, the chore the whole thing might have been), it’s still a masterclass in sequencing and construction, from the straightforward glass-chewing joys of the straightforward noise-rockers (We Think So Ill of You is the best song Oxbow never wrote) to the crucifixion-ecstasies of the two behemoth tracks, there’s absolutely an immense amount of material to love here. It’s opaque in its delivery, cryptic in its poetry beyond the unease and the disgust with all that is sensory experience, but what it offers is more immediate than any analysis can offer. Sprain have set out with all the energy and ambition in the world, to make something that both fulfills and transcends the limits of their style and by god, have they done so.