Return of the Dark Angel

Philadelphia City Paper | A.D. Amorosi

The swan song of The Swans wasn't the end of Michael Gira.

When Michael Gira was a Swan (or more accurately, The Swans), he made music grand, grieving and grotesque for over 15 years. There was romance in the crushing, industrial records Greed, Holy Money and Young God as well as disquieting ambience in the somber epics Soundtracks For The Blind and The Body Lovers.

But The Swans are over. In its place is The Angels Of Light - a quieter yet no less forlorn project.

"It sounds like a cliché but so far, response, throughout Europe at least, has been tremendous," says tour-worn Gira, just arrived in a hotel in southern Germany en route to Italy. "I had some trepidation before we started the shows, thinking people would be expecting the force of Swans... the volume of Swans. But people have been really into the intimacy of it all."

Ask him about The Swans and he finds it hard to discuss.

"I can't find The Swans' apex because I can't listen to them... I think it has value, yes, but you can't compare it to what I'm doing now."

On The Angels Of Light's debut, New Mother (Young God), Gira makes pastoral and shimmering music, swimming in the lush orchestration of acoustic guitars, bells, dulcimers, synths and softly brushed rhythms. The booming, hollow voice of Gira follows a lyrical design of gentle savagery, the race to taste salty skin. But what's most appealing to Gira about The Angels Of Light is the group's sense of joy and communion that Gira always hoped Swans fans would've picked up on.

"Yeah, hah, in the early days [of the Swans] people were into the opposite of all that, the sense of aggression," laughs Gira at the irony that he - the rude, crude, belligerent Gira - once may have baited his fans into Day Of The Locust-like fervor with confrontation.

"People came to be alienated by the intense volume and the overwhelming horror of the sound. No sooner had we attracted fans to the aggressive adventure than we went soft and alienated those fans. But toward the end of The Swans, I think the audiences under-stood what we were trying to do," he says.

The Swans' best lyrical moments came from discussion of the power of manipulation via advertising, religion and-sex. But for The Angels Of Light, Gira has based music around more personal themes and songs.

"I went into the studio, just me and an acoustic guitar, and went from there," says Gira of the organic project. "It's real instruments played with real hands - no echo, no reverb on my voice, no studio trickery... I'm orchestrating around the words as opposed to The Swans where I placed words amidst the orchestration."

Though he refers to The Angels Of Light as "flat," blunt and unsettling may be more appropriate descriptors. Like The Swans there is a certain sense of epic cinema. On New Mother, Gira wrote about things, closer to his bone, hagiographies in which he "beatifies" a lover, a parent or a hero.

"When I look at a woman, I look at a mother," giggles Gira about the references to Oedipal love strewn throughout The Angels Of Light's debut. While "Inner Female" . is dedicated to painter Francis j Bacon, "The Garden Hides The Jewel" is a "masturbatory" homage to Marcel Duchamp. The rest of the glowing record gives itself over to regretful songs about drinking and failure.

"I won't tell you who those songs are about," he laughs. He ended The Swans because he needed to move on, to fight boredom. He's an obsessive that needs to make the intuitive nature of his work come alive.

''You have this poetic inspiration and you start hammering and hacking at it like a stone mason,” says Gira. "You chisel these ideas down to a bare-bones, imagistic beauty at its purest and give it form. And that form, my form, is at its best in Angels Of Light."