The issue with creating abstract art isn’t so much that you can just dump anything on a blank space and declare it as meaningful and successful – it’s in finding the right balance between aesthetic vitality and emotional expression. All abstract art starts with an idea of a somewhat diffuse aesthetic aura, but when we interact with the work as audience, it quickly becomes a genuine emotional experience that can outlast the physical quality present. Hence, no jpeg can ever replicate or explain the striking glow of Jean Miro’s blue tryptich and no review can encompass the nuclear holocaust horror compositions of This Heat’s Deceit. But these are works by well-trained masters, whose formalism stems from study and understanding a topic they try to express as directly as possible – so creating a thesis where their use of elements ultimately reflects gut reaction to perceptions that lead to strong engagement. Ok, that sounds pretentious and art-schooly… hold on:
They choose a modus to say how they feel in response to the outside world.
There. That sounds much more appealing. Because again: the writer of this piece tried to overstate an aspect that is, simply, emotions put into words, but aimed for too grand language and made something simple into some form of complex construct that, in the end, swallowed up any blank space.
What this charade shows is that bad abstract art often seems defined by an imbalance in either of these directions. Like the amateur who smears colours over the whole canvas and drops sprinkles on top, and maybe some text in a corner, just overloading something by demanding too much of the process. But on the other end of this is an artist whose knowledge of the process collapses under a grand ambition which ultimately stresses his abilities too much, resulting in… well, I would have said Metal Machine Music, but it’s a pretty cool album, so let’s go with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s The Effects of 333, an even cooler album that saw the band experiment with noise and dark ambient stylings – at times succeeding, other times just ending up swallowing more than they could chew, coming across like somewhat muted Ramleh or leftover Dome. In BRMC’s defence, their album is a cool experiment that just isn’t too complex and in the end was offered for free, whereas bad abstract art usually disclaims grand statements and sometimes costs thousands of dollars – which leads to many fun reflections, such as this experiment documented in video form.
So what has any of this got to do with Sprain‘s second full length, The Lamb as Effigy? Well, it’s a complex eight-song work, with Robert Longo via René Magritte inspired artwork, that ends up at 96 minutes, expands with a myriad of religious images and sports the full title The Lamb As Effigy or Three Hundred And Fifty XOXOXOS For A Spark Union With My Darling Divine. I guess this is a good excuse why it took me 500 words to get to a simple statement: bad abstract art isn’t “non art”, it’s just a documentation of skill vs. intent. And equals flawed process.
The new Sprain, which I from here on out shall refer to as The Lamb (as I really don’t give a toss for long album titles), indulges in a myriad of genres, styles and expressions, leaning towards prog, zolo, drone, post-punk, noise- and post-rock. It certainly lacks a bit of ‘pigfuck’, if you ask me.
Opening with a salvo of strings, it dives into a Black Midi-style, funky groove, rendering “Man proposes, God disposes” into a proggy version of The Horrors’ “Excellent Choice” married to Ludus’ “Unveiled (A Woman’s Travelogue)”. Its seven minutes are actually very entertaining in how boisterous the guitars cut through the composition – there’s hints of New York City no wave in the song that spice things up considerably and lift it above the usual decline of Sonic Youth impersonators. “Reiterations” continues this trend, leaning towards Glenn Branca’s formula of rhythmic use and Slint’s interest in loud-quiet dynamics. It’s genuinely enjoyable in this, cleverly incorporating violins and posturing its quality by opening with the line “This song’s to ear as candiru’s to cock”, paying homage to the South American fish native to the Amazon’s waters, which burrows up unsuspecting sapiens’ dicks to bloody outcome: ouch!
“Privilege of Being” cuts through the funky rhythms to introduce clean organ drone and piercing electronic noise with mixed in feedback and maybe flutes. Not bad in terms of relieving masochistic urges, but almost too referential to This Heat’s “Not Waving”. This is also where The Lamb starts to reveal its vulnerable soft hindside: Sprain, whose debut album As Lost Through Collision was a surprisingly cohesive and fresh noise-rock effort that tore into the diffuse lockdown year of 2020, look towards other artists to figure out transgression rather than to trust their intuition: it’s all a bit too mixtape for discomfort to develop.
“Margin of Error” takes notes from Swans’ most recent experiments with imposing drone and climactic Rock explosions, but at 24 minutes and 36 seconds just feels way too underwritten. Sure, it’s cool what they do here, but the quality of the composition doesn’t warrant the 25 minute runtime, nor does the eventual climax really feel like an emotional resolve. The idea of having a long piece like this in the middle of the album seemed more pressing than developing what this piece is, ending up with a rather tedious moment that opens up questions such as ‘what time is it right now?’ or ‘why am I not outside to witness the sweet ice cream melt in sunshine?’ in the listener. While this might sound like I’m being a dick (hopefully not invaded by any tropical fishes), I would also like to remind readers that the closing lines of the song mostly comprise of the lines “My cheeks are clenched oh so tight / Are yours too?”
The idea that The Lamb is a joke is defied by the excellent two-punch – but again very Swans-inspired – “The Commercial Nude” and “The Reclining Nude”. The former’s strummed guitar and percussive nuances which slowly drift into crushing guitars, its existentialist lyrics and dark imagery (“My body constitutes my mother’s body / Our flesh on a screen / Decorated in the robes of a commercial mythology / Our postures are a monument realized in marble / I’m the object of interest and I can’t speak / Cause my lips are sewn shut”) are so Gira that it’s hard to see them outside of the context of comparative thinking – the track could just as well be on The Glowing Man. The latter, meanwhile, posits a more vaudevillian expression of similar dynamics, with a leading piano that feels right at home on an early Nick Cave record, before the compositions once more finds a climax in guitar explosions.
This middle tryptich of the record, which encompasses 46 minutes, marks both the strongest and weakest moment of The Lamb. It’s here, among all the clutter and clanking, that the band proposes their thesis of mixing theatrics with brutalism, of crushing sound-walls that are scrawled with scattershot howled lyricism that is both ridiculous and existentialist: humanity fails in its philosophical quests, as god watches on from somewhere. It’s all very laboured, and when all the misanthropy lifts and lines such as “All the while I am repeating the word ‘idiot’ to myself / Until it loses its meaning” drop, it seems almost like the band is evidently commenting on their own downfall within the process of trying to make a grand artistic statement. Sure, lines like “This is my Spade Cooley bit / My Ronald Reagan pardon / A cigarette on each nipple” are rich reference points, but the delivery doesn’t have the gothic snuff-aesthetic of a late Scott Walker work. It seems more knowing – thus rehearsed – and less nightmarish – thus frightening. To Walker, the world was a chaotic firestorm where cycles repeat and identity vanishes, save for brief moments of poetry, witnessed by lost souls as gods light shines upon them for mere seconds. The Lamb seems more intent to list quotes and anecdotes to expand on Millennial malaise.
Again, Sprain seem intent on being clever enough to answer these shortcomings via itself. “We Think So Ill Of You” has the Lamb itself express “I can’t believe it! / All my birthdays, thoughts, and ass, burnt to ashes! / The critique does not exclude me! / I’ve become the anathema! / Intimately wed to concept over practice”. At four minutes, the Sonic Youth brutality of its shredding and wailing guitars is almost welcome in contrast to its predecessors. Cross-referencing the album’s songs, it still ends up with images that are not its own, finally receding to the worn trope of a protagonist finding themselves in a talk show, “The audience is made up of everyone that I have ever met in my entire life / Every sin I’ve ever committed is put up on display by screens hung around the stage / And we watch, watch, watch, watch, watch, watch, watch / The host says I now present to you an elaborate choreography of failure!”. All catholic anxiety and Joker’isms, this image of public degradation via Hubert Selby’s characteristic stream of consciousness-mania invites for sympathy – but then it also begs the question if the intention of it isn’t to defuse any criticism itself by embracing an attempt at art as failure. It highlights that there’s a spiral of self-hatred at the heart of The Lamb, a philosophical struggle to interrogate our (self-)destructive relationship with creativity, but ultimately it also feels very adolescent.
This climaxes with the grand finale. “God, or whatever you call it” has vocalist Alexander Kent repeatedly yell “I can’t sing if you’re looking at me”, all while audibly leaving the room and then yelling from outside the microphone’s direct periphery. It’s such a grotesque moment that it honestly comes across as intentionally comedic, especially as it follows the opening of yet another reflective indulgence of criticism: “It is rapturous still, the way you fill a page / I find it to be lacking.” Kent here addresses the Lamb as its own character that he is in dialogue with, similar to how Concorde worked on Ants From Up There. But Black Country, New Road under Isaac Wood were a group defined by empty spaces and their ability to engulf imagery of the everyday to express complex emotional issues and mental struggles. Wood never mentioned his depression as text, he created elaborate imagery of trauma through a childlike gaze, inviting interpretation. Kent, meanwhile, tells us directly how he feels, adds quotations from his own repertoire and that of academic jargon and antique history and then defies irony by winking at the audience and breaking the fourth wall. It’s meta-critique of his own work as the work expands itself into a deliberately complex concept that also shrieks. Kent himself only seems to exist as meta-entity when he sings “Humiliation is the blueprint of my morals / While passersby all bid on the Lamb as effigy”, all while the finale to his monolith busts through elaborate silence and harsh noise.
All this comes down to the very critique Kent wrote for the Lamb: “It is rapturous still, the way you fill a page / I find it to be lacking.” Yes, this is a somewhat rare album of grand artistic statement and elaborate abstract artistry. But it could as well just be a joke, with many of its elements directly pointing at the artworks of abstract 20th century artists that preceded them: Gira, Branca, Longo, Magritte, Hayward/Bullen/Williams, Linder, Walker. It works itself into a rage that eats off its own existence, a mirror surface for its creators that announces itself through its own shortcomings. And ultimately this is where it falls short, because all those great names I listed before, they didn’t give a fuck. Even when they gave a fuck they didn’t express this outwardly, which is what made even their failures still interesting and their comebacks monolithic left turns. Sprain have chosen to document their own struggle with this ‘flawed process’ that I interrogated earlier in this piece – where I took 500 words, it has them expand over 96 minutes, an overlong album title and christian anxiety alternating with socratic philosophy. The elements are there, but the wool is too thick and needs some shaving. So no, I won’t sacrifice this lamb in ritualistic fashion – I pet it on the head and give it a thumbs up, which will likely alienate the lamb, but some ice cream and sunshine should alleviate all that.