Over the course of their last couple of EPs, SPQR have really show an aptitude for growth. 2017’s The House That Doubt Built introduced them as a fidgety, intelligent indie / math-rock band with potential that wasn’t as effectively hewn as it could be, something that was quickly rectified with 2019’s sharper and tighter Low Sun Long Shadows. They’ve already undergone a decent journey in terms of where they’ve sonically set themselves up, and for a band that are still ostensibly new and, at this moment, tied up almost exclusively in smaller DIY scenes, steps forward at such a rate are easy to stand back and marvel at. There’s no pretensions towards infiltrating the mainstream space, even with the subsequent relative streamlining of their sound, and that ultimately feels like the best possible path for SPQR to take. There’s clearly a fluidity in their creative process and evolution, and to end up in a position that would jeopardise that just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
That’s why No Brain, No Pain is a bit more reflexive with its intentions this time, circling back to open out the sound a bit more again, but holding its experience tightly to not feel like any sort of regression. SPQR are still yet to have that real spark of excellence to solidify them in a tier of greatness that they’re already so close to, and though No Brain, No Pain isn’t quite there either (to be honest, Low Sun Long Shadows does still pip it in terms of overall quality), as an exercise in gathering together a few more pieces to be crafted and honed into what could undoubtedly be a great release, this still feels like a necessary part of SPQR’s journey. They’re broadening themselves without it being spread too thinly, and this EP exemplifies their skills at pulling that off in arguably its best form to date.
It also presents the pretty steady implication that the limitations of a short-form release are felt rather heavily by SPQR, given the number of ideas they clearly have that would have far more room on a full album. That might seem like a nitpick, but a sound as detailled and off-balance as theirs just doesn’t fare as well when cramped down to just a four-track release, as each individual track offers a unique element that isn’t quite as knit together as would be preferable. To the band’s credit, they’ve made a solid effort at making this a more consistent listen overall, but you still get instances like the title track and its more percussive, almost tropical sound akin to an act like Friendly Fires, and it does seem a shame that the means to explore those avenues deeper and weave them into something bigger aren’t yet available. That can be added onto the notion that SPQR’s songwriting only seems to be getting better, with a more introspective slant playing into usually quirky turns of phrase and imagery like on Nuthin Gud, where the uniqueness of Peter Harrison’s voice helps to hold what’s almost a sense of abstraction together.
It’s fitting considering how SPQR feel like a very abstract band. There’s a splashy sense of creativity that comes from the jangling guitars and horns on Just Sumfin that are almost reminiscent of a more coy take on Britpop, and how when they’re brought back on Love Summer, they’re repurposed almost entirely against woozy bass and rippling synths. It helps that the layering and production on this EP fits exactly in the vibe that SPQR need, allowing it to be more open-ended where those elements can flow and reshape themselves between tracks, but also keeping a distinct sense of intimacy and small-scale charm. There’s definitely a sliver of pop appeal baked into this EP, but it’s art-rock experimentalism and fearlessness that’s SPQR’s greatest strength, and within the indie context they’ve placed it in, No Brain, No Pain is once again evident of a band making their most of their abilities.
That’s been a key factor that SPQR have really hammered down well in their music, to the point where the expectations for any future full-lengths really have ballooned past what might have been there initially. And the mood around this EP does feel as though that big debut is coming; No Brain, No Pain sees the last remaining corners of SPQR’s oeuvre filled, to the extent where the next logical step is to piece it all together and make something truly special. Right now, they’re hitting a bar that’s consistently high with everything they’re trying, the sort of acceleration that’s outgrown the smaller confines of EPs like this. It gives No Brain, No Pain the feeling of a good standalone effort but an excellent conduit, leading into a new phase for this band that, given what’s already come, couldn’t be more exciting.
For fans of: Press To MECO, Sick Joy, Sœur
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘No Brain, No Pain’ by SPQR is out now on Nuthin Gud Records.