Angels of Light | We Were Alive ! | Review

raw aural force and sonic beauty

"We Were Alive!" is a collection of 10 visceral hymns performed live by The Angels of Light in 2001 in Toronto. In them, Michael Gira and his musicians manage to find and fashion a perfect balance between raw aural force and sonic beauty, something that he has pursued for 20 years. Although there is obviously pleasure and a sense of joy in the earlier Swans releases, you had to cut through several layers of skin, fat and muscle to find them, often your own. "Filth", "Cop", "Young God", "Greed", "Holy Money", "Public Castration is a Good Idea", "Real Love", "Children of God" and "Kill the Child" are probably best experienced when you’re completely pissed off or depressed. The words and sounds contained in these albums seem to focus all negative emotion and turn it into an invigorating, life-affirming force. It isn’t a matter of feeling a "connection" with a group who’s voiced an opinion you happen to share, as much as it is experiencing how well their careful use of words, rhythms and repetitions are used to convey intense ideas, sensations and emotions. While very physical music, early Swans is also very intelligent music. The methodology found in these initial works can be heard, and more importantly, felt as The Angels of Light’s four musicians manage to play with enough energy and elegance to create the near impact and volume level of a symphony. Searching for beauty isn’t as difficult or painful as it used to be.

Using primarily acoustic instrumentation (guitar, hammer dulcimer, autoharp, drums), layers of sound are skillfully and vigorously built up, slowly escalating to achieve the force that moves the music along. It’s mostly through grooves and repetition that The Angels of Light manage to convey the feeling of reverential exhilaration invoked by the sound. It is also worth noting that "We Were Alive!"’s album cover depicting Gira’s torn, bloodied thumb is based on fact: he cut it while strumming his guitar too hard on tour. Despite the injury, he still neglected to play with a pick. This injured digit (temporarily filled with Krazy Glue) creates a very unique tone that shifts throughout the album, the thumb-timbre sounding like an amalgam of acoustic guitar, banjo & koto.

After commencing with an enchanting version of "Evangeline" from 2001’s "How I Loved You", the group moves onto "What Will Come" from the third (still-in-progress) Angels studio CD. The song has lyrical references to a certain recent tragedy so subtle and well phrased that what could have easily resulted in something obvious, oppressive and dismal is instead an authentically chilling song. Its constant ascending and descending keyboard tone - ominously reminiscent of an air raid siren – is unforgettable.

The album’s centerpiece is arguably its fifth track, "All Souls Rising". Dana Schetcter’s heavy, electric bass rhythmically stabbing into Gira’s acoustic guitar establishes the song’s over nine minute-long groove. This groove is aided by drum rolls, well-placed cymbal rattles, and atonal Farfiza bursts originated and maintained by Larry Mullins (Iggy Pop, Toby Dammit) and Thor Harris (Lisa Germano). Based upon Madison Smartt Bell’s book of the same name about Haitian slave riots, the song’s idyllically gory lyrics ("Sweet rose of the forest, rupture and burst between my teeth, rupture here inside my mouth, change water into mercury. It is not me…is not me…") ride the music on a slow, steady, uphill progression toward a thunderous climax...then somehow restructures itself to rise and continue for about 5 more minutes. Your neck and shoulders will continue moving along with the rhythm despite the vigor with which they ache.

The music on "We Were Alive!" grows less dense as the album moves on, graciously and wisely allowing space to flow in. Despite its violent conclusion, "New York Girls" sounds more solemn than the version of the song on "How I Loved You". Live, the keyboard melodies mimic tremulous strings, which in turn convey the stabs of wonder and trepidation in the belly of a secret observer of beautiful women. Voyeurism is also a main lyrical focus of the eight track, "On the Mountain". The song begins as a coarse & elaborate revenge fantasy, but eventually proves to be an anguished, penitent love song. The album’s final two tracks, "Goddamn the Sun" and "Failure", respectively performed partially and entirely solo by Gira, show that the power and elegance of the sound created by this group are ultimately centered on the sensibility and vision of one man.

The sound quality of "We Were Alive" is good; clear yet textured enough to suggest what it would sound like if The Angels were singing and playing only a few feet away from you. "We Were Alive" is only available from Young God Records in a signed and numbered edition of 750, all proceeds from the sales being used to fund the next Angels of Light studio album.