Across the 96 minutes of The Lamb as Effigy or 300 XOXOXOs for a Spark Union with the Darling Divine, Sprain’s Alexander Kent curls and shrinks and shrivels. He is consumed with guilt the way that a building is consumed with fire. Sometimes he throws it off in a fit of rage or pique, strengthened by the incredible, ugly heaviness his band generates. Sometimes, he cowers in the beneficent presence of the patient, gorgeous drones that hum the album into a temporary state of serenity. But mostly, Kent ruminates in long, uncomfortable, occasionally tedious passages, the urgency of his emotion goading him into singing more than he seems to want to. He strikes out at God and at the titular Lamb, who may or may not be the same being, but every dart he hurls skyward inevitably returns to pierce his head. He is Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, trying to tamp down his anxiety long enough to declare that a criminal’s conscience will inevitably cause him to suffer.
If that makes The Lamb as Effigy sound off-putting, uncomfortable, overwrought, and maybe a little boring, well, so is Dostoevsky. Sprain began as the somnambulant slowcore project of Kent and bassist April Gerloff, a style that suited the apartment setup where they recorded their first EP. They expanded to a quartet for 2020’s harsher As Lost Through Collision, and now, with The Lamb as Effigy, they appear to reject restrictions of any kind—genre, narrative cohesion, and the general principles of how an album should be constructed. But don’t let the pair of 24-minute songs fool you: While Kent’s lyrical vision is sometimes obscured by the steam his frustration generates, The Lamb as Effigy is expertly crafted. It’s symphonic in scope, operatic in delivery, and no wave in attitude.
Sprain have cited the intensely difficult music of Iannis Xenakis as an influence, and you can hear the blood-soaked chaos of the Greek composer’s Persepolis in the abyssal screeches of The Lamb as Effigy’s “Margin for Error.” Throughout the album, rapid streams of noise flood and overwhelm things, bursting the boundaries of traditional post-punk and either carrying the songs into oblivion or allowing them to stagnate in the heat of Kent’s anger. In “Privilege of Being,” unhappy electronics, rusty violins, and woodwinds whistle like suffering birds, their shivers echoed later in the twisted and pulsing guitars of “God, or Whatever You Call It.” These moments are chaotic, but they speak to the band’s ability to develop a musical idea over the (very) long scope of the album. When hollow keyboards phase across the opening of “Margin for Error” like Steve Reich’s Four Organs re-scored for a horror film, it feels like blame being shifted between two people.
But these ambitions also make The Lamb as Effigy an occasionally frustrating listen. As a singer, Kent is capable of channeling Serj Tankian’s righteous sputter, the spiritual rage of Isaac Brock, the direct provocation of Chat Pile’s “Why,” and the inarticulable bitterness of Gilla Band. But as a lyricist, he has a tendency to turn his back to the audience, falling so deep into misery that he sometimes struggles to get a message back up to the surface. Paranoia and surveillance dominate the lyric sheet, and listening to Kent rage can feel like watching guilt, fear, and self-loathing tumble together under a microscope: You get uncomfortably close, but it’s not always clear what you’re looking at.
Still, this is an album concerned with what can’t be said, and it’s at its best—and most nuanced—when it stops trying to explain itself. “Margin for Error” and “God, or Whatever You Call It” act as backstops for the album’s first and second halves. In both songs, Sprain work their way into massive drones that seem to glow with benevolence. They’re buoyant—candy-flecked and jewel-toned. But the longer the band plays them, the more their good charm starts to feel like a trap, their warm smile stretching into a rictus grin. Like someone whose good behavior masks a rotten interior, the beauty of the drone ultimately becomes oppressive. Without them saying a word, it’s Sprain’s strongest argument against the thumb that’s holding them down.