Favorite Tracks: “Cloud of Unknowing,” “The World Looks Red / The World Looks Black,” “When Will I Return?,” “The Glowing Man,” “Finally, Peace”
Whenever a Swans album comes out, it always proves itself to be a profoundly interesting trek into the dark recesses of frontman Michael Gira’s broken psyche. Whether it be guys with toothy FILTH shirts at music stores or blog-worthy epiphanies after finishing up the second disc of SOUNDTRACKS FOR THE BLIND, Swans and Gira have been familiar names in experimental post-rock for a good while now. Since the 80s Sonic Youth tour, Swans didn’t have a problem venturing away from the accessible and towards the aggressively bizarre fueled by Gira’s tumultuous past. When resuscitating Swans in 2010 after its supposed 1997 disbanding, many heard a more refined Gira coming back from his Angels of Light side project. The albums to follow were amazingly produced and still kept the dreadful intensity that made Swans much more than just 90s noise. Most of the time, Gira hits it right on the mark for awe-struck critics and fans alike without a hitch. Even Angels of Light’s releases continue to get decent recognition. Not bad for an angry, old guy in a cowboy hat who used to repeatedly sing “Put your knife in me!” and sell drugs in a Jerusalem prison. But troubling circumstances surrounded THE GLOWING MAN. Not only did the album have to follow the incredible success attributed to TO BE KIND, but it also had to be the supposed final work by Gira and his current group of collaborators under the Swans name. That plus the Larkin Grimm drama just prior to release put Swans’ last chapter at risk of being a messy one. Despite its many hindrances, however, THE GLOWING MAN definitely delivers.
It might not be as dynamic as previous Swans releases, but THE GLOWING MAN’s sense of atmosphere is unparalleled, leaning more on ambient than anything else. Many tracks are long and meaty but never meander. The album is chock-full of incredible sonic landscapes. Various guitars melt into synths and then further morph into emotional strings that are so easy to get lost in. It’s quite hard to break free from some of the intoxicating trances the album has to offer, but the band makes sure to jolt you in different directions before any audio demons are fully excised. A lot of it is due to some impeccable percussion. Crisp drums may provide some safe head bobbing at the beginning of the album but they eventually escalate into the maddening piano smash crescendo at the tail end of the monumental title track.
Gira’s vocals still retain plenty of those signature drawled bellows and they work well here to create a wonderful extra layer to the album’s more evocative pieces. Swans lyrics, as they’re known to, usually revolve around suffering with a few healthy doses of religion. Chants and shouts, almost always arriving at the perfect moment of instrumental immersion, turn many songs into ritualistic prayers for an ascetic cult of pain and anguish. The intro, “Cloud of Forgetting,” has him desperate and on his knees begging to God “Save us! Save us! Save us!” While in the more unnerving “Cloud of Unknowing,” Gira himself ascends to omnipotence as he eerily proclaims “I am watching your son.” Every bit of his delivery is spiritual as he tows the line between thunderous, prophetic sermons and speaking in tongues.
Probably one of the most powerful moments on the entire album is the comparatively short track “When Will I Return?” where we get a haunting vocal performance by Michael Gira’s wife Jennifer. In cryptically revisiting her sexual assault, she briefly faces what could be her death but gloriously reclaims herself as the song transitions from tragically dreary to epic and triumphant.
While THE GLOWING MAN isn’t as much the explosive finale Swans fans might have hoped for, it does strike at the core of what made Swans so great. The album’s genius doesn’t come from knockout what-the-fuck moments, but from something deeper. As is with most of our lives, Swans wisely avoids ending with a bang and embraces the meditative and harsh reflection. Instead of a predictable Wilhelm scream, we get a deathbed lullaby recalling brutal past victories but still beautiful in itself.