Michael Gira goes soloThe black saint
First impressions do last, so I'll always remember Michael Gira as the "revenant black saint" he goes on to describe himself as in the lyrics to "Of Death (Love Me Now)," from his surprisingly romantic new solo album New Mother (Young God).
It was 1986, and there he stood, in mock-crucifixion, at the brink of the Rat's stage, pale and blank-faced in the dark as he drooled bubbling rivulets of saliva down his chest into a pool on the floor. The band churned out a homophonic din: twin kit drums, bass, sampler all pile-driving on a single, monolithic beat. So loud my pants flapped slightly with every downstroke of rhythm. Then Gira licked an accumulation of spittle from his lips and began shouting a single phrase -- "I'm useless; stick a knife in me" -- over and over.
That Kodak moment will always be my dearest image of Gira and the band he led at the time, the New York City-based noisemongers Swans. Over 11 years and a dozen-plus recordings Gira refined Swans into something more, um, Swan-like -- a group who balanced textural sonic beauty with animal brutality. The evolution was even reflected in the titles of Swans recordings, with names like Greed and Raping a Slave finally giving way to Real Love.
In 1997 Gira ended Swans, after, as he puts it, "I'd banged my head against the wall for years trying to get something good to come of it." Despite the cranial pounding, Gira does have good memories of the band -- especially the early days of drool and din. "It was spectacular. I really enjoyed it," he relates by phone from his New York City apartment. "I don't know where my energy came from. I was working construction and hanging sheet rock eight or 10 hours a day and rehearsing six hours a night. I had immense energy. It probably has something to do with nefarious substances as well. I think in 1984 I weighed about 150 pounds and was 6'1". My diet was as many pints of Bud as I could consume at the local Greek restaurant.
"At that point, I just decided to build something up. I had no musical skill but decided to make something from rhythm and sound." Drawing on the influence of guitar-rock composer Glenn Branca, ambient kingpin Brian Eno, and punk rock, Gira did just that. And as he continued to build Swans, his musical and conceptual abilities kept expanding. With Swans and his various side projects, including a collaboration with his ex-wife, Jarboe, as World of Skin, Gira has created one of the most intriguing and challenging bodies of work in modern rock.
Gira may feel that his energies have reduced a bit over the years, but it's hard to tell from his recent output. Since ending Swans, he's recorded two albums of ambient music: Number One of Three (Young God), which has just been released under the name Body Lovers, and the forthcoming Body Haters CD. The former began with Gira and a coterie of musicians laying down parts in the studio. Their work was then edited and embellished with cassette-tape loops, field recordings of insects, and other sonic flotsam Gira hoarded. It all went into a computer, which -- when it overdoses on digital information at the end of "1" -- creates the meanest blat of buzzing feedback imaginable. Frank Zappa would have loved it.
He might also have loved the stirring New Mother, Gira's first song-oriented solo effort post-Swans, which is being released as the work of the mythic group the Angels of Light. (Gira is assembling a quintet to tour the US as the Angels of Light this summer.) But chances are Swans fans will love New Mother more. It's Gira's most organic work. All the songs were written and initially recorded on acoustic guitar. Then piles of electric guitar, keyboards, voices, percussion, vibraphone, reeds, and other instruments wielded by 19 musicians added flesh to their bones.
But the meat's transparent. The lyrics of songs like "Fear Death (Or Love Me)," "Praise Your Name," "Shame," and "Angels of Light" offer a glimpse into Gira's conflicted heart as he explores the knotty course of human love and sex and dreams. Dedicated to Jarboe, New Mother explores the feminine realm in its flashcard images of pregnancy, male hostility, female empowerment, and raw aching need. And when Gira caws out a line like "Why am I so cruel?" amid the title number's exploration of dependence and hard rejection, the gently Fellini-esque arrangement colored by melodica and Casio assures us he's not kidding about its poignant mix of emotions.
So does Gira. "Over the last few years I've discovered this unfortunate aspect of myself -- the unfortunate evil that exists in me," he says quite seriously. "I've been trying to wring that out in my songs, my moral lapses." Hence songs about drinking, psychological abuse, and the violent images that were a staple of Swans. But, Gira tells me, "I don't at all attempt to be dark. I think I'm a compassionate and rather sensitive person. This is more about realizing how morally corrupt I am, and trying to deal with it -- trying to be a good person and apologizing." A sonically beguiling and personally daring achievement, New Mother makes it clear that Gira at least needs to make no apologies for his art.