Wednesday, June 29, 2016

album review: 'the glowing man' by swans

This will reportedly be Swans' final album.

Or at least this incarnation of the group, which reformed after their first breakup in 1997 in 2010, working to push out some of the most massive and primeval music created in experimental rock. Because while there are very few groups I cover that I would consider impossible for mainstream listeners to appreciate, Swans is daunting even for me, known less for sane song structures than mammoth ten minute plus compositions that pile on layers of instrumentation to create thunderous crescendos and grooves. There are very few groups that dare to approach their scope and power, and while they might have been a tad more accessible in the late-80s and 90s thanks to a stronger melodic presence, which led to masterpieces like Children Of God and The Great Annihilator, in recent years the scale of their focus has led to behemoths of sound. This culminated in 2014 with To Be Kind, their largest ever work and was critically acclaimed by many - including myself - as one of the best records of that year, which further brought in a thematic focus on how a child might experience the huge emotions of the world. Swans mastermind Michael Gira has described the record's goal as ecstasy, but when engorged to such colossal scale, it's easy to see how unsettling the huge emotions might seem to anyone else.

But where do you go after such an effort? To Be Kind was the sort of high water mark that Swans had already hit twice before, but there has to be a limit to that sort of scale, you can only push crushing instrumental layers and growth so far. And as such, while I heard that Swans were - necessarily - going to be dialing the insane crescendos back a bit for The Glowing Man, how would they hit the same impact?

Folks, I've struggled with this review more than anything I've covered in months. And on some level you expect that - Swans are not a group that you expect to make accessible music and that's going to demand more than a few listens. But with The Glowing Man, given how many times I went through this album - and it's nearly two hours, that takes a lot of time - I had a hard time getting a handle on this. I knew it was good, probably even great... but I didn't like it as much as To Be Kind, it didn't connect as strongly. It's tough to see why, too, because on the surface Swans is doing much of what they usually do, but it seems like there are a few too many moments that have been done before and done better, or experiments that feel a tad too long or outright misfire. 

Now that's undoubtedly a contentious opinion, so let me start with the instrumentation and production, because there is a definitive change between this and the last album, specifically in composition. To Be Kind was defined most by its grooves and crescendos, with some of the most potent and powerful examples of instrumental dynamics you'll hear from the group. The Glowing Man is not like that - there are definitely fantastic grooves here and melodies that warp and contort themselves in powerful ways, but there isn't the same sense of growth and build-up that drove most of the last album, and it ultimately means some of the climax points don't hit with the same impact. Oh, there definitely are those points - the huge instrumental stings on 'Cloud Of Forgetting', the cracking break into the second half of 'The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black' with the heavier horns, the odd alt-rock groove at the mid-point of 'Frankie M' that has some fantastic drum work, and pretty much everything about the title track, easily the standout thanks to several mutating grooves, including one around the fifteen minute mark that reminds me of Anna Meredith in how slight melodic twists can totally redefine how you hear the progression - only Michael Gira does it with insane drum fills that still have remarkable subtlety. And there are truly spectacular moments of instrumentation here in the rhythm section - great basslines, superb drumwork, powerful acoustic moments, almost to the point where you wish the rapid skittering pianos and borderline tremolo-guitars could rise out of their atmosphere for to add more punch. And that's not saying there aren't melodic moments I really dug - the organ on the title track, the bells across 'Cloud Of Unknowing' and 'People Like Us', the jagged electric guitars on the unsettling 'When Will I Return', and most of all the choral arrangements are absolutely stellar, with both male and female vocals often indecipherable but building to a Wagnerian swell. And while Michael Gira might not have roped in such immediately recognizable backing vocals or even is as visceral as he was on To Be Kind, he's still an impressively commanding presence in and of his own right - although in my mind, the best vocals come from 'When Will I Return' from his wife Jennifer, who sings about her own sexual assault with a truly unsettling blend of numbness, grief, rage, and reclaimed confidence - powerful moment.

But here's the thing: this album is not without its instrumental missteps and indulgences. Most noticeably it shows up on the odd jittery buzzing squeals that open up 'Cloud Of Unknowing', even as the song does get a lot better, or the buzzing layers that cascade over 'The World Looks Red/The Word Looks Black', but the larger issue is that a fair few of these longer tracks could have been trimmed and few would know the difference. I get that at this stage of Swans' career they're basically making soundscapes, but if you're not going to build your grooves and progress, it can often feel like songs such as 'Frankie M' and 'Cloud Of Unknowing' run short on ideas, or you just get moments like the end segment on 'The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black' that doesn't fit or pay off anything. And what's even weirder is that there are songs where they actually feel a little short or lacking in payoff - 'When Will I Return' is a great song, but it could have progressed for another two minutes and I wouldn't have cared, and a few of these tracks have an oddly abrupt ending, and that can become an issue when your tracks have lumpy, half-formed progressions. I might like the atmosphere on this record and how the instrumental segments assemble themselves out of the seething morass like creatures shambling from the ooze to then gallop into the desolation only to break apart again... but it leaves long songs with isolated moments of transcendence, not the whole piece. And while you'd get that anyway with long tracks, it wouldn't feel as pronounced as it does here.

But alright, that's all structure - what is this album trying to say? Well, this was the hard part - and not surprising, because Michael Gira's method of songwriting isn't exactly driven off of narrative but mood and visceral texture. But this record felt more impenetrable tan usual... and thus it makes a certain amount of sense that thematically this album seems to be exploring how humanity relates to God. Now Swans have not shied away from talking about religion before, and on this record the symbolism is pretty blatant, but what it ultimately means gets complicated, because faith and exaltation in the face of a higher, unknowable power isn't supposed to make sense. The opening track 'Cloud Of Forgetting' shows Gira casting his face to heavens and screaming to be taken... and at the end of the song he's left blind, unable to bear the light. One could argue this is the medieval, borderline cosmic picture of God, with humans scrabbling across a world we're destroying and desperately sucking any vestige of life from iconography or each other. And yet there's a lot of references to Jesus across this record, God who became man to bear forth love without cause to save us, pounced upon by his human father on the title track in a warped version of cannibalism and incest that's here because it's Michael Gira and of course it is. But that song also draws the parallel between the 'glowing man' and the 'nothing man', a unity and sacrifice that gives us the opportunity to be saved. And that opportunity is powerful in and of itself: that's why 'Frankie M' and 'When Will I Return' fit thematically on this album, to break free of drug addiction and the lingering pain of sexual assault to say 'I am alive'.

And I really do love how this record ties it all together on the final track 'Finally, Peace', with a line that will probably go unnoticed but is quintessential: 'Just a symptom of love / With a lack of a cause'. Because that's important to understanding - we as humans can't comprehend the scope of God's love with intellect and reason, just that he loves us - so here's the question Gira raises: why does God love us? It's a destabilizing question because we don't really know that answer, a logical mind doesn't naturally get that when God is omniscient and omnipotent and yet the world is not a perfect place. And thus with 'Finally, Peace', Gira proposes an answer: purpose. God loves us unconditionally to give our minds a sense of purpose in the vastness of the universe, more than just an arrow in space, even if we can't quite understand what that sense of purpose is or when we stray regardless. And I really love the final line of the album, which is a homophone: 'your glorious mind', and it's blurred just enough to also be heard as 'your glory is mine'. A united meaning, showing both how we can't comprehend that higher power, but that he has given us the agency and power to experience great and terrible things.

Now if everything I just went through seems like a load of pseudo-spiritual pretention and you just want to enjoy the grooves and walls of powerful instrumentation, I'd get it, but Michael Gira is the sort of songwriter and artist who makes this sort of thematic cohesion make sense. And the more I've written and talked about this album, the more I think it really is something special. I don't quite the music gets all the way there for me, but thematic cohesion and writing and some of the moments on this record that are insanely good, I'm giving this an extremely strong 8/10 and the highest of my recommendations. I'm not sure if this will be one of the best records of the year - and again, in terms of Swans records I'm not quite sure it's Gira's best - but in confronting primal truths, I don't think in 2016 there'll be one better, so definitely check this out.

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