Medium The Glowing Man Review
There’s no way to predict what path Michael Gira will take Swans down next.
From the industrial rock inception of the legendary New York-based experimental rock kings in the early 1980’s to the group’s then-magnum opus “Soundtracks for the Blind” in 1996 to the subsequent hiatus beginning in 1997, Gira has always guided the group down an assortment of musical paths that keep the group’s material exciting and fresh.
With their latest release — “The Glowing Man”, the band’s fourteenth studio album — the band’s current lineup has reached its end, leaving Gira with the opportunity to carry on Swans’ undeniable legacy with an assortment of collaborators and a seemingly never-ending creative mind.
The current lineup revived Swans from the dead in 2010 and with the release of “The Seer” in 2012 they began dabbling with a musical formula that they’ve perfected.
The formula is simple: a succinct groove tightly played as added bits of instrumentation meticulously chime in and progress in intensity and volume until they transform into herculean walls of noise that become so brutal that they self-destruct into battered pieces and the listener’s mind is nothing but a scrambled pot of stew.
A couple of years later in May of 2014, they released “To Be Kind”, the best album of that year. Swans took that formula they initiated on The Seer and turned the tightness and intensity up a few notches. It was a more balanced record than The Seer and in my opinion a more daunting, yet rewarding task to overcome.
On TGM, even though the band does primarily stick to the formula that made the previous two albums so successful, they approach it from a different angle. For starters, TGM is certainly not as direct as TBK and requires careful attention otherwise full satisfaction won’t be achieved. It is somewhat of a challenge to get through, especially if you’re only a casual music fan who doesn’t have two hours to spare, but it’s a rewarding experience nevertheless. Because while Swans was completely freakish and overpowering before, this album is a lot more relaxing and mesmerizing.
The album kicks off with “Cloud of Forgetting”, a song that is similar to the previous two Swans openers “Lunacy” and “Screen Shot” in that it effectively sets the tone of the entire album. It’s a very beautiful, slow-paced and spacious track that takes its time to build. However, this song quickly reveals that the builds on this album won’t be as intense as previous Swans ascensions.
Take the title track, which rehashes the same repetitive note that opens the song “Bring The Sun/L’Overture Toussaint” on TBK. While this note on the latter track is absolutely pummeled into oblivion, the title track’s version is faster, and while still heavy, much brighter. Instead of feeling like I’m in a world of shock, it’s as if my soul is escaping my body and entering a place of pure bliss.
Another key difference between TBK and TGM is the instrumental unpredictability. On TBK, the songs followed logical progressions, but on TGM, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which direction the songs are heading at times, especially on the track “Cloud of Unknowing”, a track that transitions from a chaotic beginning to a beastly guitar lick that wobbles me senseless to Gira and a heavenly group of backup vocals chanting to the heavens as the drums go absolutely bonkers.
However, just because the direction of the songs are difficult to forsee, Swans still maintains structure and musicality. The song “The World Is Red/The World Is Black” follows consistent grooves throughout both halves of the track. These two sections are connected by a sudden hammering of a single note that I absolutely adored. Sprinkled onto this track are fluctuating buzzy synths and sudden strikes of exciting horns.
A slight drawback on this album that leads me to prefer TBK is Gira’s presence as a vocalist. On TBK, he had so many captivating and animalistic performances that really enhanced that record, while on TGM he appears to be playing second fibble to the entrancing aesthetic this album is going for. He does have direct moments, such as the second half of the title track, but for the most part, Gira is fairly subdued and simply a piece to the puzzle rather than a driving force. There’s nothing wrong with this tactic, especially considering TGM is a much more holistic musical experience than TBK.
While the longer tracks on this album are all outstanding, what really tied this album together perfectly are the shorter tracks, with the best of the three being “When Will I Return”, a song sung by Gira’s wife Jennifer about her traumatic sexual assault experience in the past. The lyrics are very raw and personal and while the song’s subject matter is dark, the vocal performance on this song remains gorgeous, especially when Michael enters the picture.
The song “Finally, Peace” closes the album and this era of Swans in an ironically appropriate way. While Swans does have their collection of catchy songs over the past few records, this song features almost a lullaby-esque feel that doesn’t throw off the flow and feel of the album at all.
It’s honestly sad that this version of Swans is coming to a close because what they’ve accomplished over the past three records is truly unprecedented. A band with a new lineup comes in after a decade-long hiatus, alters their sound and arguably releases the three best records in their discography. And TGM is a stunning culmination of this lineup and if this is the end for the group, then you really can’t end it any better than this.