With an album name like The Effigy As Lamb or Three Hundred And Fifty XOXOXOS For A Spark Union With My Darling Divine, it’s hard to see past the pretentiousness. The runtime–close to two hours–also doesn’t do it any favors. Nor does the record cover with split-screen stills of two people posing in strange positions against a geometric corner in black and white. But knowing art students created it, Calart students specifically, makes its headiness more expected and at least a little easier to digest.
Sprain started in 2018 as a project between Alex Kent (guitar/vocals) and April Gerloff (bass), whose self-titled debut EP was a beautiful and haunting jewel of slowcore–the first track, “True Norwegian Black Metal”, featured the two singing quiet harmonies while a guitar plucked arpeggios all at a snail’s pace. 2020’s follow-up, As Lost Through Collision, saw their ambition grow with the addition of a second guitar (Sylvia Simmons) and improved audio production, turning their focus from plodding tempos toward a more aggressive and experimental sound. The Los Angeles outfit drew comparisons to 1990s post-rock revolutionaries Slint and Unwound.
“Man Proposes, God Disposes” opens The Lamb As Effigy with a string quartet that sounds like it could have been written by a pre-serialism Arnold Schoenberg. Its long-bowed notes and murky tonal center create an unsettling precedent that persists throughout the LP. The romantic format gives way to the clashing intervals from a guitar while the drums propel forward, giving the impression of a panic attack. The bass, a la Les Claypool, meditates on an angular ostinato, and Alex Kent recites his warped stream-of-consciousness poetry with fury, making allusions, similes, and histrionics. “I will stand here like an idiot with an apple on my while you hurl response like some blasphemous arrow” and “A Sisyphean guilt / A heart hidden beneath the floorboards guilt / William Tell-Tall Heart,” he empassions.
The performance and compositional structure of “Reiterations” is a highlight of The Effigy As Lamb. From the get-go, the mood is pommelling. The slow and heavy riffs are punctuated by Kent’s yelling and hits of feedback guitar until the guitars go into a jangly counterpoint, offering one of the few moments of serenity. Through the verses, Kent talks, shouts, and whispers through ponderous abstractions–animated emotions, eating his breath–then climaxing with a “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” shaky falsetto. He is manic–Emmy nomination worthy–ramped up by a rhythm section that chugs along, limping. It’s hard not to relate with Kent and the pure frustration and anger he exudes in this post-COVID, climate-fucked world.
The Effigy As Lamb is frontloaded with what resembles traditional song structures. Some sections repeat, along with others that are only heard once. “Privilege of Being” is heavenly, with acoustic guitar strumming until a ranchy organ chord drones on. The string quartet returns with a moment of bliss. Most of the following tracks, “The Reclining Nude”, “The Commerical Nude”, and the sprawling 25-minute “Margin For Error”, are unstructured improvisations. The discomfort and unease come from a palette of unpleasant noises, feedback, and samples. The cacophony is all intentional. In an interview, Kent explained that his music is a manifestation of anxiety–such that few listeners would agree otherwise.
Although “We Think So Ill of You” and the album thesis “God, or Whatever You Call It” have fragments of songs, they can be hard to reach since they are buried in the track times. There’s no question that Kent is the mastermind behind the project between the dense verses and the 17 instruments he’s credited for playing–from the obscure hammer dulcimer and singing saw to regular instruments like piano and guitar. For the patient listener, The Effigy As Lamb is thrilling, but not everyone has the patience to stay tuned through the emotional diatribes and intensely biting noise. Overall, Kent and Sprain’s performance here is spectacular, and their aim at a masterpiece finds an exhaustive, immersive, and ambitious work of post-rock, noise, and poetry that self-proclaimed intellectuals will lust after.