Angels of Light | Review

Micheal Gira, has steered his angry innovations across genres and decades

New Mother
Young God Records

New Mother is a debut album, but the rock beneath this church has seen kingdoms fall and weathered them. One of half of New York's pioneering art-punk outfit Swans (indeed more like a kingdom than simply a band), Micheal Gira, has steered his angry innovations across genres and decades emerged from the darkness with sixty minutes of sensitive, vivid and often gorgeous balladry. In other words, a twenty year veteran sounding more like an ambititous young upstart, an "easier" and less rocky Tom Waits.

Truth be known, Gira may have had these intentions since the late 80s, or the mellowing out of Swans; "God Damn the Sun", from Swans' Various Failures retrospective is the closest to what would eventually become the Angels of Light. But where Swans generally espoused amelody, repetition and almost a disdain for colorful pop-flourishes, New Mother embraces them. The album's apex, "Angels of Light" also serves as a solid microcosm: a lone guitar line progressively becomes accompanied by counter-melodies and delicate instrumental layering until something of mini-stringed orchestra emerges at which point it stops abruptly. Then, enter Gira with a lilting vocal melody and a quiet ode to committment. With a cast of almost two-dozen, Gira has indeed pulled out all the stops here, and he completes the dash with a vocal performance that is unexpected but not entirely surprising - the man is an excellent singer. His Leonard Cohen-esque baritone is diversified into wails, whispers, hums and a sense of melody that would make Morrisey swoon with envy.

Conceptually one cannot help but notice the materialization of a particularly feminine vibe. Talk of "the mother" both literally and naturalistically, as well as the blatantly uterine cover art, this theme is actualized in a song called "Inner Female" in which he warbles with no apparent irony, "Through you I sing: Female". Seeing as how the album is dedicated to Jarboe, his ex-wife and long time collaborator as one half of Swans, Gira has apparently struck a balance between his personal demons as well as his old creative standbys: the corporeal, and of course the cadaverous. "The Garden Hides the Jewel", despite its memorable and sonorous melodies, is in fact about a dead body rotting in a pretty garden. And "The Man With the Silver Tongue" involves draining blood from a corpse, a disembodied tongue, a slaughtered pig and the line "My Jesus of the rotting meat, I cut your throat and lick your feet". You connect the dots.

Therein lies the paradox among thirteen uniformly excellent songs of bittersweet American balladry. Among the seventeen tracks, two are filler and two, "Real Person" and "Not Alone" simply suck. These songs are faux-experimental and utterly sterile electronically tinged songs in which Gira vocals are treated come off sounding (god forbid) quite whiny. A mood would have been established here were it not for these two scars. It's like a plane trip in which some annoying brat sporadically decides to start kicking the back of your seat; a plane trip which otherwise would be a pleasant excursion.

Though quite dissimilar to Swans, New Mother is also a very traditional and offers little in the way of innovation. But so what? It is ultimately an excellent and flawed and recommended release. If you're wanting to see where this highly interesing artist is at AD1999 and are brave enough to immerse yourself into his vision, step into the light.

Review by Lee Steadham

Review date: 08/2000

How I Loved You
Young God Records

It's no secret that Michael Gira has spent a lifetime writing love songs, although at times you couldn't be sure when noting his Swans catalogue of work. However, for his post-Swans project, Angels of Light, Gira unabashedly writes plenty of love songs. The second studio release from the outfit, How I Loved You is specifically all love songs, all the time, albeit hardly the anesthetized top forty tripe one may think of when thinking of love songs. Instead, Gira explores the emotion in a manner only he seems capable of.

Angels of Light still retains a certain Swans feel for any fan who may be curious about Gira's more current activities. There are enough commonalities between the softer era of Swans and Angels of Light that it's quite easy to recommend his new project to the curious. Many of the same people who had a hand in Swans music make an appearance in Angels of Light. The process of song creation in Angels of Light seems to have a much more casual feel to it, as though Gira writes the basic acoustic parts and asks his friends what they can add to it. The result of it is a very loose How I Loved You, yet very well constructed despite the lack of dictatorial approach for writing a song. The album ranges from moody and introspective, such as the excellent opening "Evangeline", to raucous and rowdy, such as "My True Body". Gira's singing is expressive and matches the mood any particular song on the CD.

Angels of Light seems to allow Michael Gira to perform his music in a much less constrained, looser environment and How I Loved You proves how well this method works for the artist. Any fan of Various Failures era of Swans will instantly find much to like about this CD.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 10/2003