Angels of Light | Review | Lee's Palace, TorontoSometimes a Swan can turn into a delicate Angel Tuesday, December 18, 2001 Â– Print Edition, Page R4
Angels of Light
At Lee's Palace
In Toronto on Sunday
Angels of Light leader Michael Gira is not an "up" performer. Tall and gaunt with a fondness for suits and wide-brimmed hats, he looks like a preacher who wandered out of a Flannery O'Connor story and has a thing or two to tell you about suffering and torment. Back when he performed with the New York group Swans -- who were reputedly one of the loudest rock bands on Earth -- Gira writhed and groaned as if he were in hell already.
Thankfully, Gira has mellowed somewhat, even if recent songs still bear such heart-warming titles as My Suicide. Before a small but reverent audience at Lee's Palace on Sunday night, his Angels of Light group made its local debut with almost two hours of music that was more beautiful than harrowing.
Gira himself likens the group -- formed after the dissolution of Swans in 1997, it has released two albums of surprising delicacy, New Mother and the recent How I Loved You -- to "Pink Floyd as interpreted by the Carter Family." In other words, Gira's gloom finds a new setting in songs steeped in both the spectral, droning psychedelia of the English rock band circa Pink Floyd in Pompeii and old-time American folk and country music. It's an odd but effective mix that also recalls the recent work of Nick Cave, another post-punk songwriter whose music has grown less violent but still retains its air of menace.
Gira played acoustic guitar while three musicians switched off and on a variety of instruments, including Farfisa organ, vibraphone, melodica and dulcimer as well as bass and drums. The wide palette of sounds allowed for both bright tonal colours and utter cacophony. The evening's first song, Evangeline from How I Loved You, was an aching country ballad made distinctive by Gira's impassioned baritone voice and a sense of momentum that transformed the song into a dirge as powerful as any of the chamber-punk compositions of Montreal's Godspeed You Black Emperor. Rooted in the murder songs found on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, My Suicide was another country-influenced number, set at a pace between a waltz and a funeral procession.
At other times in the set, Angels of Light created torrents of noise that recalled the greatest moments of Swans, who emerged from the same downtown New York scene as Sonic Youth in the early 1980s but whose challenging music kept them well out of the mainstream. A new Angels of Light song called All Souls Rising was eventually overwhelmed by rumbling percussion and eardrum-busting cymbal crashes -- the veins bulging in Gira's forehead as he howled. Another unrecorded song, Nations, closed with Gira bellowing, "you're not alone, not alone" while the music crunched to a halt. (Ironically, the two Swans songs performed on Sunday -- God Damn the Sun and Failure -- were relatively gentle ones.)
For a songwriter who writes so much of pain, Gira was a surprisingly garrulous presence. Before beginning the set, he encouraged everyone to come toward the stage because it felt "too much like home-room in high school." He chatted amiably with the crowd as he tuned his guitar, sipped bourbon and tea and filed down the Krazy Glue that covered his injured thumb. After introducing the band, he quipped, "And my name is Tommy Smothers."
The performance was otherwise unlikely to provoke belly laughs. But even though
Gira remains a creator of austere, emotionally devastating music -- as well
as one of America's most unique and underrated songwriters -- he's clearly spending
less time in hell.