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March moved at a crawl; April is slogging into its second half. Elsewhere, musician Sean Sprecher asserts the constraints of time are purely elastic, and that the plight of humanity is an infinite jest. “The wisdom of age is learning it can always get worse,” he mutters on “Waste Not,” the 13-minute opening track from “Old Blues,” his tumultuous sophomore release as Bad History Month (out April 24 via record label Exploding in Sound). Uttered from a jaw nearly clenched shut, it’s difficult not to feel some sort of empathy as another week has vanished in a blur.
And this is precisely what separates Bad History Month from other emo-revivalist projects: the ability to self-examine with such cynicism and total abandon that it’s impossible not to contract it yourself. His paradigm is contagious, his vision is consuming. The parallax through which he views life in its unbound absurdity takes focus with every anxious breath and every caustic cymbal crash. His immense feelings radiate through his music like heat from a carcass on a dead winter night.
Sprecher’s heavy spirit and sharp wit are byproducts of an earnest East Coast upbringing. A fixture in the DIY and emo scenes of the Northeast, Sprecher relocated to Boston in the mid-2000s after a childhood spent in New York City, subsequently forming the first iteration of Bad History Month (née Fat History Month) with drummer Mark Fede. This early incubation period garnered critical praise and a cult following with the release of 2011’s “Fucking Despair” and “Bad History Month” in 2013, the latter of which greatly informed the navel-gazing guitar rock of “Dead And Loving It: An Introductory Explanation Of Pessimysticism,” Sprecher’s lauded solo debut as Bad History Month in 2017.
Where “Dead And Loving It” felt like a tense brooding, “Old Blues” is wrought with bitter intensity, abhorrent and loath to tenderness. It shrieks and wails like a wild animal on a chained leash — the title alone suggests a heavy set of baggage (or what Sprecher more specifically describes as “childhood trauma dragged into adulthood”). But what “Old Blues” ultimately boils down to is an exorcism of paralyzing stigmas — self-doubt, intimacy, greed, the complex bond of mother and son — and an eviscerating disembowelment of ego and id. “Old Blues” is, in a word, unfettered, a fascinating look into the catharsis of psyche by means of discordant guitars, crude drums and a raw, uncompromised voice.
This is to say, Sprecher’s sense of hope is greater than the sum of all its parts. “Though I've become fairly cynical about the human spirit, I still do write songs that strive for hope more than anything,” he said in a statement about the album, and this is true. The songs on “Old Blues” are harrowing journeys that, when traveled, reveal a glimmer in the distance.
Perhaps best expressed in the album’s opening epoch, the nautical “Waste Not” — which bears resemblance to Slint’s post-rock beacon “Good Morning, Captain” — uses the analogy of a reckless sea voyage to represent the toxicity of emotional trauma. Much like the open sea, it’s constantly in a state of flux. Dreamy, idyllic passages of music flip with a cymbal crash and the music turns choppy and dissonant, the tension rises, and rage consumes the narrative (“Sinking in the shallows, a broken beach ball, The Kid With Thin Skin, ashamed, and red, and raw, beyond reason...”). Guitars churn, drums violently crash, and the cycle repeats. It’s emotionally turbulent and unhinged, like a white-hot flash of shame pulsing through an apple-red face.
The diaristic bildungsroman of “Want Not” addresses consumption by means of “corrupt Cartoon Culture” that scales a lifetime. “I was barely four in 1989, struck blind for the first time by television ads for Ninja Turtle toys,” he opens fecklessly, a staccato guitar line accentuating each syllable. Thus, we enter a 15-minute study into the ideas that shaped Sprecher’s lifelong guilt, both haunting and energizing. The rhythms distort and change tempo as the story expands into his “angry, failing teenage years,” and the concept of money begins to conjure a sense of paranoia and shame.
In one particularly graphic anecdote, the stoned teenager accidentally scratches off a mole on his scalp, and after its shocking discovery, he feels disturbed by how little he understands his own body. It’s in this story where great contemporary storytellers like Phil Elverum or Mark Kozelek show their influence, using specific details and jarring imagery as a means of describing a bigger picture.
Part of what makes “Old Blues” so enveloping is its use of underscore. The driving elements behind each song — the paradox of intimacy (“Low Hanging Fruit”), vindictive defeatism (“Childlike Sense of Hatred”), existentialism (“Grudges”) — are bolstered by music that carefully punctuates every word, every whisper, every delicate phrase. The Isaac Brock-esque cadences of “A Survey of Cosmic Repulsion” feel sinister, just short of evil, the bleating guitars as shrill as Baphomet’s wail; the frenzied midsection culminates in the low wheeze of a synthesizer that mimics a great universal sigh. While each backbone is irrevocably guitar and drum-driven, the musical boundaries for which the songs exist are perpetually tested. Is “Old Blues” a folk study, or a product of fourth wave emo? Is it quintessentially post-rock, or drone metal for sad people? The truth is, it’s a little of all of those things, but what it is exactly entirely depends on how and where it hits you hardest.
While the visceral rawness of Sprecher’s storytelling are enough to make you wince, the function of “Old Blues” isn’t to wallow or overshare. Instead, its purpose is incendiary; somehow, despite such berating emotional context, Sprecher flips the mirror, revealing how our own brittle selves are a puzzle, created by a cycle of embarrassment, failure and the conjecture of some form of a moral that we use to piece together our own identities, leaving us questioning what exactly it means to be human.
Bad History Month’s “Old Blues” is available on April 24.
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