As Lost Through Collision by SprainRelease date: September 4, 2020
Label: The Flenser
The Flenser are one of those labels whereby I’ll always investigate a band upon their signing to the San Francisco institution. One is seldom disappointed. And despite a roster that features great variation in its ranks, Sprain are an addition that makes perfect sense upon first listen of their debut album. For those uninitiated in the former, the quartet wield an unstable mix of noise rock, post-hardcore and slowcore. Ironically, those that had their finger on the pulse early on and had listened to Sprain beforehand, would not characterise them as such, with only the latter genre ringing true.
The quartet were not a quartet in 2018 when their highly regarded self-titled EP was released. Rather they were a duo, consisting of Alex Kent and April Gerloff, and whose first five songs ushered into this world was unabashed, understated slowcore, through and through. Clearly worshipping at the altar of Slint and other artists such as Duster, Sprain had created an extremely promising half hour of music, with a track that stood out for its title radically juxtaposed to the aural content of the song: namely, ‘True Norwegian Black Metal’.
If this rings familiar, it might be because now fellow roster compatriots Have a Nice Life had, on their critically acclaimed debut, deathconsciousness, a track called, ‘Waiting for Black Metal Records to Come in the Mail’. In an alternate reality, I do hope that somehow this is how The Flenser found Sprain: a random comment in a social media chain leading them to this new band. I don’t know why this pleases me so, but it just does.
Sprain’s debut album shares some DNA with their self-titled – how could it not? – but the addition of second guitarist Alex Simmons and drummer Max Pretzer has not only bolstered the overall presence in their own music, creating a robust edge to even the most fragile of the album’s moments, but radically altered what kind of band Sprain is.
Folded into their sound is the aforementioned noise rock and post-hardcore, but also a hearty helping of drone that warps their slowcore foundation, alongside some influence from 20th century avant-garde classical composers, such as Iannis Xenakis. The band also cite Krzysztof Penderecki as an influence, but I don’t hear that quite so much in the five tracks presented here, but perhaps this is more methodology or principle, rather than overall sonic performance.
Although As Lost Through Collision features the same number of tracks as their EP, Sprain’s debut LP is a whole twenty minutes longer, formed as it is with two shorter pieces, a ‘medium’ sized work, and then two sprawling double-digit tracks. Overall, the band can be characterised as sounding like Unwound, Jawbreaker and Drive Like Jehu jamming with Codeine and Low. Maybe Justin Broadrick popped into the studio to say hi and played behind the desk when no-one was looking. Or, maybe, just maybe, Sprain sound like The Paper Chase, post-mental breakdown, still deeply depressed, with no fight left in them really, but still prone to the occasional fit of rage when no-one’s looking, punching the wall of a deadbeat motel until bloody and bummed out at realising they have incurred some charges that surely can’t afford, before checkout.
As Lost Through Collision erupts with ‘Slant’, a fiery track that almost burns itself out within a minute, as it settles into an uneasy swing, before the volume returns to envelope the first semi-spoken, semi-scream/sung vocals. Unusually, we were provided with the lyrics sheet for the album for this review. I’m unusual – I think – in heavy music circles for always being really interested in the lyrics, so this came as a nice bonus, and, because they were included, I can only believe the band themselves hold them dear, too.
The album feels borne from anxiety, depression and perhaps frustration as well. I almost resisted writing “unfortunately perfect for 2020”, but, err, there you go. Sprain’s creations feel especially poignant now, and with the pandemic still taking its toll, especially in the USA, and with the country entering what will surely be a vicious, divisive presidential election season, I’m sure our American friends listening to this will be hit all the more so;
“We have our hate
We’ll keep it in
We’ll keep it close
You know your place
You shut your mouth
You keep it closed
It’s one more wound to lick
To break convalescence
It’s one more ten hour shift
For more joy to inject
One more grave to be dug
One more stone to erect”
The angular, often abrasive nature of ‘Slant’ will surely be a surprise to those who knew the band from their EP, but it does strangely feel like a natural progression, and is a testament to the band that it still sounds very much them, even if them has doubled and altered drastically in the meantime. ‘Slant’ gives way to ‘My Way Out’, a nine minute track more reminiscent of their slowcore roots, but pulling those roots apart, almost to breaking point. For a great deal of the song, there are no guitars, and a rhythm section so sparse they are hardly there either, with Alex also barely audible, barely getting the words out. It feels like a midnight confession, a private, angst-ridden conversation into the pillow, willing oneself better, happier, more functional for the following day. Grasping at something, potentially unobtainable…
As the band thunder back in, they only mimic this internal fight with lack of confidence, anxiety, sadness. Mirroring the walls coming in, shattering, crumbling, ‘My Way Out’ is devastation and a deeply haunting piece of musicianship and composition. It feels necessary for ‘Worship Horse’ to fall kicking and screaming into that sombre silence and exhibit the most vitality on the whole record. Insistent and caustic, it follows a similar formula to ‘Slant’ in that after this frenzied opening, it puts on the breaks to allow Alex his missive;
“The funeral generation sighs
Now happy birthday
Now please pretend you’re entertained
You gave birth to all the sins”
The track ramps up its fevered attack on the world and its wrongs, the quartet building in atonality, while a simple, pretty riffs tracks on underneath, occasionally breaking the choppy surface. Shrieks and screams erupt at times as the band reaches ‘Worship Horse’s truly bludgeoning, unsettling denouement;
“Life is an ant
In the palm of time’s cruel hand
‘Worship Horse’ marks – if you, like me, think in vinyl terms – the end of ‘Side A’ of the album. So far Sprain have undoubtedly deeply, deeply impressed and managed in three songs to exhibit a rare ability to blend some seemingly disparate genres together. A unique trio, and extremely promising.
‘Side B’ of As Lost Through Collision features two tracks, ‘Everything’ and ‘Constant Hum’, consisting of a running length as long as their debut EP, the former running at fifteen minutes, the closer at ten. Both tracks, let it be stated, are also excellent, but even upon many re-listens, the album almost sounds like a split release: the Sprain of now with the Sprain of some other time, still featuring all the same members, still taking all the same influences, but offering us up something rather different.
Tonally, we’re in a similar location, don’t be fooled. Sonically, there is no unevenness either, with Josiah Mazzaschi (Built to Spill, The Jesus and Mary Chain) still behind the engineering desk and the mixing for the entire LP courtesy of Tim Green (Melvins, Lungfish). But, compositionally, we are in different waters – as though we have drifted through an invisible border between oceans. We’re riding a different current now.
‘Everything’, perhaps the spiritual successor to their EP’s track ‘Anything’ (if only in likeness of name), is a huge track, emotionally as well as contributing to a third of As Lost Through Collision’s length. The first few minutes feel like a natural continuation of the record, before it strikes this through with the thick black line of a monstrous doomy riff, squalls of feedback, Alex shrieking “everything!” over and over, and it slowly devolving and beginning its descent into a deft, extremely well executed piece of drone, with the humongous riff returning here and there, and other noise experimentations vacillating in and out. It’s an awe-inspiring statement, completely unexpected. Although Sprain had been heavy on the album before, and so jaw-droppingly more than their aforementioned EP, nothing prepares the listener for this.
The track builds to its’ loud crescendo, before ‘Constant Hum’ breaks this with its own brusque entrance, and prior to receding into a pattern we have heard before, as vocals and heartbreak take centre stage once again;
“I’ll try to take some time with it
Self-medicate and happily go numb
Waste of time
In counting days
And this nine-to-five
Well it’s all you’ll ever be
And we’re all swimming in
An endless pool of constant hum”
Sprain maintain their mastery of dynamics, with the closer to the album featuring the most complex songwriting yet, with numerous twists and turns in the guitar work and the subtle, versatile drumming throughout. ‘Constant Hum’ finishes the album on a powerful, yet aptly desultory, note.
As Lost Through Collision is a brilliant album, featuring five jagged, exploratory, inventive tracks that marks it out as one of the most exciting albums of this year for sheer compositional audacity. It is also an album that has taken a screenshot of a band still in a transitory state. Sprain have come a long, long way from their first audio offerings. One can tell on their debut that the quartet are still feeling their way, still investigating their noisier, heavier influences; sometimes jumping in headfirst to then pull back and investigate the trauma rendered. And sometimes they push their slowcore foundation to its limits and maybe beyond, putting it under the microscope, seemingly interested in what its bones look like and if something, perhaps in a different formation, can be built from them anew.
In the vast majority of their experiments, Sprain prove to be successful and hold rare ability for their alchemy. The only criticism of As Lost Through Collision is the feeling that we’re still mid-experiment. This no doubt gives the album its exciting vibrancy and fuels its raw power, but especially with such a clear split in its running order, it can feel like a game of two halves, rather than a cohesive whole. This will come as soon – one suspects – as album #2 given their radical evolution to date, and then Sprain will surely be a band to be truly reckoned with.