The Angels of Light | Previewone night a few years ago, the Swans played the Orbit Room's big room - though, in retrospect, played is probably the wrong word. That freaking band didn't play anything; God forbid you use a child's word to describe that torturous night - that black-and-white noise pouring from the stage like acid and thunder, and all that droning, tumultuous feedback. All I remember of that night is the frightful roar (imaging punk without, like, notes) and trying to locate even the slightest hint of a song beneath the waves and waves of dirgey discord: that, and standing on Commerce Street, a few hundred feel away from the Orbit Room, and still being able to hear the rumble inside over the oncoming traffic outside. Pain, thy name was Swans. God help me, but if I never hear "Blood Promise" (at least, I think thats what that was) done that way again, it'll be too soon. Probably the point, though.
Still, it was sort of odd, given that the post-Love of Life records were actually kind of pretty, in a grimy and sort of disquieting kind of way; the live show seemed something of a throwback to the early records - the unlistenable ones. But the Swans were always sort of inexplicable that way, torn between the hideous facade and the indecipherable beauty that lay just beneath the surface. Somewhere between the beginning (1982's self-titled EP) and the end (the band allegedly busted up last year, though Michael Gira and his ex-wife, vocalist-keyboardist Jarboe, are inextricably linked), the Swans mutated from art-punk to folk-rock, if one must define sound on such strict terms. Listen only to Jarboe's 1998 Anhedoniac, with its pom-moans and horror-wails: there, you will find all you need to know about what this band is and was, thrill-seeking for the fun-challenged.
Gira's own "solo" work has veered from the deadly dull (1995's Drainland, a wrist in search of a pulse) to instrumental doodlings (The Body Lovers and The Body Haters): it's all so art, they ought to hang it on a gallery wall. So to call The Angels of Lights' debut New Mother a rather pleasant experience is grand understatement. Maybe it's such a shocking ordeal because you can actually listen to the damned record start-to-finish without wondering what you're going to shoot first: the stereo or yourself. Gira falls into the Nick Cave/Mark Eitzel/Stuart Staples school of how-low-can-you-go? Singing, his voice drops so deep, it could rescue a baby from a well. But, of course, it suits the lyrics fine: "Kill anything that walks," he moans-groans at one point, following it up with such choice snippets as "You're breathing in a silence that will drug you so completely" and "I kiss his skin with razor blades" and "Now fucked by three dogs: bitter loss, arrogance, and jealousy" and "She feeds where my pink heart once beat." New Mother - it's the feel-like-shit record of this or any other year! But that's what will happen when a guy ditches the pretenses and decides to play it straight, confessing to a multitude of sins and then making it all sound so absolutely gorgeous (more than a dozen musicians appear here, bringing with them an orchestra's worth of instruments, from electric guitar to flUgel-horn). Don't know how it will play live - advance reports are promising, but that's with a nine-piece band - but, God help me, it's got to be better than that Swans show.
The Angels of Light perform June 15 at the Gypsy Tea Room.