Smells Like Infinite Sadness Glowing Man Review
NYC’s noise rock icons Swans have had an impressive career trajectory this decade. For a band that started in the early 80’s, reforming in 2005 after a 15-year hiatus, they sound as hungry, raw and exploratory as ever.
Following 2012’s brilliantly dark The Seer and 2014’s overwhelming opus To Be Kind, the group are now back with The Glowing Man (due June 17 on Young God Records) billed as the last album to feature its current lineup (including founding member Michael Gira, Thor Harris, Phil Puleo, Christoph Hahn, Christopher Pravdica, Bill Rieflin and Norman Westburg).
And it’s a fittingly seismic sendoff, continuing the group’s exploration of sonic space and emotional weight, with several songs nearing the half-hour mark.
Things kick off with Cloud of Forgetting, a haunting opener with lush piano and cascading guitars. It’s a calm before the storm, with Gira intoning with a sense of spiritual solemnity:Reaching out…I am blind.
It dovetails with Clouds of Unknowing which begins with an atonal din before lurching into a strident droning riff, stark cello and tribal percussion–a distilled Venus In Furs lost in an endless hall of mirrors.
One thing that makes Swans so fascinating is how little they adhere to traditional songwriting mechanics, often discarding typical structures (verse/chorus/verse/etc). They simply veer from one extreme to the next with symphonic urgency built on frenetic blood and sweat.
Take The World Looks Red/The World Looks White, which starts off with restrained Gothic overtones for nearly 7 minutes before shifting into a funky guitar/horn shuffle that sounds like a possessed variation on Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft.
Frankie M takes a similar approach, beginning with Gregorian style chanting and cavernous soundscapes before going into art-metal overdrive, only to later shift gears into jazz territory as Gira sings of addiction and graphic violence until the track finally implodes in bravura fashion.
Swans albums are impossible to digest in one sitting, let alone two or three. This makes them tremendously thrilling yet exhausting propositions that take days to fully absorb.
The title track is the ultimate example, beginning with shards of snarled noise before hanging on an insistent bludgeoning riff for almost half of its 28 minute duration.
But then it shifts into something even stranger, a lurching horror show vamp featuring sinister backing vocals and Gira at his most messianic.
Gira has always had a way with a mantra, one that manages to sound both healing and nihilistic. It’s an unusual combo for sure, but it works in spades throughout the album, making lines like I am a glowing, glowing man/ I am a nothing, nothing man equal parts euphoric and frightening when filtered through his intimidating pipes.
The albums biggest sonic detours occur in the most concise tracks: When Will I Return (featuring Gira’s wife Jennifer on vocals) is a gorgeous ballad (albeit with unsettling lyrics), while People Like Us has the odd gallop and strut of an old Broadway musical, with lyrics that suit the final voyage: We’re drifting goodbye / On a rust-colored cloud.
Likewise, album closer Finally Peace lives up to its title, one of the most tranquil and beatific songs they’ve ever recorded, marking the end of a fruitful creative cycle.
While The Glowing Man might be too intimidating for newbies, Swans fans will find it a fitting closing chapter for this current incarnation. They’ve used every part of the buffalo, asking for the listener to arrive equally invested, before they, and we,move on to the next destination.