Vinyl District Glowing Man Review
Swans is a formidable behemoth amongst bands. Swans is also the recording and performance entity of one Michael Gira, and with The Glowing Man he’s effectively closed the door on the latest incarnation of his group. Having recommenced activity back in 2010, the two prior Swans studio albums are sprawling examples of collective massiveness and this latest installment is no different; clocking in just shy of two hours, it’s a sustained and immense thrust of creativity certain to engross and challenge listeners for decades to come. It’s out June 17 through Young God (and Mute in the UK) on triple vinyl, double compact disc, 2CD+DVD, and digital.
Like a fair amount of reality, the story of Swans would be unlikely to survive as a fictional construct; chances are great that if made up, Michael Gira’s shape-shifting unit would fall victim to a reduction of size and ambition. Gradually maturing from post-no wave beginnings to serve as a cornerstone of ’80s noise-rock, Gira shed those limitations to reveal unexpected range on a string of more broadly scaled ’90s records. He then dissolved the band and explored various musical avenues beyond the appellation Swans before assembling a new lineup at the start of this decade.
It’s this most recent manifestation of Swans that would exceed fictive norms, as reconvening to make music under an established moniker usually entails returning to a comfort zone and tapping into a wellspring of largely safe ideas. Instead, Gira’s rekindled Swans increasingly offered such grand magnitude that borderline incredulity frequently resulted; reports of their performance juggernaut only raised the head-shaking astonishment.
Of course with 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, ’12’sThe Seer and ’14’s To Be Kind, Gira was actually getting back to the epic length, all two hours and 21 minutes, that was explored on ’96’sSoundtracks for the Blind, while far from repeating himself; often still a pummeling experience, the sound of these Swans registered as less antagonistic and not as sharply rebuking of rock clichés.
The 21st century edition was more hypnotic and spiritual in the hugeness of its grooves, but it’s important to note the growth wasn’t without precedent; indeed, the ‘90s albums headed in their current direction as they integrated aspects of apocalyptic folk and reestablished Gira and company’s footing after an unsuccessful (if somewhat underrated) major label dalliance via ’89’s The Burning World.
In a sense, The Glowing Man’s 118-minute length is an almost predictable way to end this version of Swans, but the record, while familiar, finds them playing it far from safe. One cursory way to parse the set is to break it into three groups: The long songs, with “Cloud of Unknowing” and “Frankie M” breaking 20 minutes and the title track nearly attaining 30; the shorter ones, with “People Like Us,” “When Will I Return?” and closer “Finally, Peace” landing in the four to seven-minute range; and those in between, specifically “The World Looks Red / The World Looks Black” and opener “Cloud of Forgetting.”
Record one commences with a slow rise before attaining a folkish plateau that itself gradually undergoes a building intensity, especially after Gira’s immediately distinctive drawl enters the picture. Inevitably, the gathering tension is released but in a manner lacking in triteness, as the track’s success is heavily reliant upon the riveting multi-dimensionality of the band.
The band is Gira on vocals, electric and acoustic guitar, Norman Westberg on electric guitar and vocals, Kristof Hahn on lap-steel, electric and acoustic guitar and vocals, Phil Puleo on drums, dulcimer, knocks and vocals, Christopher Pravdica on bass guitar and vocals, and Thor Harris on percussion, bells, vibes and dulcimer. Bill Rieflin is designated as the Hit Man and 7th Swan; he contributes drums, piano, synth, Mellotron, bass, electric guitar, and vocals.
At nearly 13 minutes “Cloud of Forgetting” is essentially a prelude. “Cloud of Unknowing” comes next and welcomes the guest cello of improviser Okkyung Lee; they waste no time in creating a sonic maelstrom that’s just as quickly curtailed in favor of the customary thudding repetition and progressively more agitated vocals.
The weave methodically progresses toward crescendo but then enters a series of unforeseen redirects that can be succinctly described as Swans at the top of their game. Rather than showing signs of fatigue or flagging inspiration, The Glowing Man ends this chapter of the tale (Gira and the name will continue in different scenarios) on a sustained vibrant note and with the highest quality one could reasonably expect.
Gira labels “Cloud of Forgetting” and “Cloud of Unknowing” as prayers, but “The World Looks Red / The World Looks Black” finds him reaching way back and retrieving some lyrics he’d given to Sonic Youth for their ’83 LP Confusion is Sex. This isn’t any kind of noise rock throwback however, as the musical precision on display here is completely different from what’s heard on SY’s “The World Looks Red.”
Nearing the end there are interjections bringing to mind the imitation horns of Gira’s ’80s NYC cohort Jim “Foetus” Thirlwell, so it’s not as if the lyrics are completely removed from their era. It leads into the melodic concision and buzzsaw baritone of “People Like Us,” which in turn ushers in the atmospheric beginning to “Frankie M.”
Categorized by its author as a “tribute and a best wish for a wounded soul,” the cut concerns one individual’s struggles with heroin addiction; the music encapsulates, extends, and ultimately transcends the descriptors applied to the Swans’ corpus. In a fantastic development, when Gira’s voice eventually enters a little over halfway through, he sounds more than a bit like Peter Murphy.
“When Will I Return?” was written specifically for Gira’s wife Jennifer to sing, and she does a fine job with lyrics of clear personal resonance; as a whole, the track is a solid hunk of doomy folk with an ample serving of cyclical pound in the second half. Following is the last of The Glowing Man’s lengthy selections, the penultimate title cut additionally connecting as the emotional climax of the record while providing its most sustained excursion into rocking environs.
Growing out of live improvisations during performances of To Be Kind’s “Bring the Sun,” “The Glowing Man” includes a section of the prior song, a circumstance underscoring the constant evolution of this surprisingly enduring lineup and by extension what will be missed with their exit. Like “People Like Us,” “Finally, Peace” is tagged by Gira as a farewell song. Knowing this adds a layer of beauty to an unusually catchy tune, though by the end the drone bona fides are well asserted.
It brings the studio output of an amazing entity and their sui generis leader to a highly satisfactory, if understandably bittersweet conclusion.
GRADED ON A CURVE: