Welcome to a new and improved Beandon’s Musical Corner, the only place on campus for in-depth, exhaustive reviews of the latest releases in rock, jazz, experimental … and pretty much everything else. Brandon Rupp (also known by his mononymous musical title “beandon,” under which he releases music and DJs as KZSU’s Student Music Director) explores a new title and gives unfiltered feedback, regardless of the genre. Feel free to send him music; he’d love to take a look!
The great poet and literary critic W. H. Auden once said:
“Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.”
I sought to avoid this negativity (but with regard to music) in creating this column. As a result, I have been in the midst of what I have called my column’s gushing praise arc. This tendency to celebrate may seem to be chalked up to the free reign inherent to the column format, but it’s not that simple. Auden has the common sense to realize that it’s impossible for the average critic to always stay true to this principle: “… if a regular reviewer on one of the big Sunday papers were to obey his inclination, at least one Sunday in three his column would be empty.”
I am increasingly hitting those “empty” Sundays. This is not from lack of listening, however. To the contrary, I have been devouring more music than ever. It just turns out that new music that I should theoretically love — such as “The Lamb as Effigy,” the sophomore record from the recently disbanded experimental rock group Sprain — has left me wanting more.
Sprain was a band born and killed at the hands of frontman Alexander Kent. Just as quickly as they hit the scene, the outfit announced their departure in October with a bizarre Instagram post featuring a clip-art of an alligator. And, according to co-founder April Gerloff, this came three weeks after she was abruptly kicked out of the band.
Sprain’s parting release, “The Lamb as Effigy,” with its irritating subtitle “or Three Hundred and Fifty XOXOXOS for a Spark Union With My Darling Divine,” is a last hurrah desperately vying for attention. I decided to give the album’s eight tracks an hour and 36 minutes of my attention on nothing more than friends’ recommendations, the title’s absurdity and the album’s incredible cover art.
This turned out to be a poor decision. “The Lamb as Effigy” is a miserable album which meanders in half-hour post-rock tracks (heavily indebted to Swans) and trots out Alexander Kent’s brittle spoken word (a Xerox of every “post-Brexit new wave” band with a vocalist who can’t sing).
To be clear, I love Sprain’s sources of influence, making the album’s squandering of good ideas feel even more depressing. Swans’s recent album trilogy (“The Seer,” “To Be Kind” and “The Glowing Man”) is a colossal achievement, and the 1996 album “Soundtracks for the Blind” is an uncontested masterpiece. So-called “Post-Brexit new wave” is the source of some of my favorite bands of the past few years, such as black midi or Black Country, New Road.
And Sprain does get a lot of it right. “The Lamb as Effigy” is a forcefully performed album ripe with fantastic arrangements and a propellant rhythm section. The production is punchy, raw and well suited for music as dynamic as post rock. This production, in turn, reveals an abundance of complexity buried within the album’s oftentimes ear-splitting distortion. (Take a look at the stunning instrumental for the opening track, “Man Proposes, God Disposes,” for an example of what I mean.)
In its best moments — the ones without vocals — the album has a classical flair reminiscent of Glenn Branca’s finest work.
However, as soon as the vocals emerge in track one, the album’s main problem becomes uncomfortably evident. The lyrics are horrific ramblings that should have been abandoned in journal entries. “A post-ejaculation man upstairs watching guilt / Wet potential smeared across your stomach guilt” is as ludicrous as it is garish.
And one can only imagine that the impetus for clunkers like “An exchange of jargon from one orifice to the next / All my thoughts are ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,’” was frontman Alexander Kent watching a clip from a Noam Chomsky lecture on YouTube.
I’m not saying this to minimize any emotional connection one may make with this album. Kent is certainly delivering a unique, challenging experience which might, in fact, appeal to you. But the album’s overly verbose lyrics are best described by a Bloomian paraphrase of an Oscar Wilde quote: “all bad poetry is sincere.” To put it bluntly, listening to this album gives me second-hand embarrassment.
When Kent is not delivering mumbly, monotone spoken word, his vocals are great. The screaming at the beginning of “Reiterations” is powerful and guttural, dragging the listener through an emotionally turbulent sludge metal passage. However, he frequently trades this for goofy falsetto or pseudo-spooky ramblings.
For example, the 11-minute “The Commercial Nude” is one of the album’s toughest listens. The middle section’s wailing falsetto of “Make horses see scorpions / Make horses see scorpions / Tear all these walls down / What am I now if not my failures?” is worthy of a skip alone, but the song continues for four more minutes.
The track reminded me that there is a reason why Glenn Branca did not squawk quotes from his high school diary over harsh guitar noise when recording his 1981 no-wave masterpiece “The Ascension.” Namely, it would’ve detracted from the power and beauty of his dense, challenging instrumentals.
Moving in a positive direction, “We Think So Ill of You” is one of the album’s highlights. In its comparatively brief four-minute runtime, shrill guitar noise plays overtop a groovy, slinky bassline and technical drum patterns.
The closing composition, “God, or Whatever You Call It,” is a mixed bag in an album of mixed bags. The first few minutes are fantastic: They are built around bursts of dissonant, furious guitar runs that move up and down the neck at a breakneck pace.
While I could hyperfocus on travesties of the English language like “It is rapturous still thе way I empty my mouth / Stillborn ideas plus fertilе hips,” I am more interested in the lack of lyrics in the song’s second half.
In order to convey the impossible task of mortals comprehending the Lamb’s divine machinations, Kent deploys an interesting aural conceit. He asks the Lamb questions and then uses bursts of high-pitched noise to represent its answers.
The combination is both annoying and deeply interesting — Sprain in a nutshell. On a serious note, I love how the band morphs their guitars into a moaning and wailing animal at around the 17-minute mark through brilliant effect trickery.
I come back to Auden: “One cannot review a bad book without showing off.” Considering that I spent the introduction to this column constructing a meta-analysis of my approach to criticism, he may very well be correct.
However, I see this as emblematic of the sheer hollowness of “The Lamb as Effigy.” Much akin to the clueless religious imagery littering the album, I’m finding myself at the end of an “empty” Sunday, wondering if that idea means anything (or if I should even care).
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.