Angels of Light | We Were Alive ! | Review | Nathan Hogan

Very Alive

With Murray Street sweeping away the summer¹s competition and sweeping up the critical accolades, maybe it¹s a good time to check in with Michael Gira. I mean, back in the early 1980s when SY was "just" a NYC noise/art-rock band, Gira¹s Swans were "just" that as well. The two shared plenty of stages, and it was easy to make comparisons between the former¹s discordant, aggressive swagger and the latter¹s bombastic, ear-bleeding shudder. Since that time, as so many publications large and small have tirelessly reiterated, Sonic Youth has pursued a quest to reconcile their avant-garde roots with more populist aims and structures. The people who like Murray Street, which is just about everyone who's heard it, hail it as a new benchmark in the band¹s quest to successfully marry the vanguard to the mainstream and simultaneously transcend both. Yes, Murray Street is as good a record as any in recent memory to have the force of the major label machine behind it, and it¹s exciting to watch ­ as it was with Washing Machine, as it must have been with Daydream Nation -­ the sheer variety of people who are eager to put themselves behind such a record once it's been handed to them.

What is amazing is how Gira, by comparison, has been relegated (or perhaps more accurately self-exiled) to something of the madman in the attic. The creative arc that he and the Swans navigated between 1984's Cop / Young God and their sublime mid-90s curtain call Soundtracks for the Blind is extraordinary, and their accomplishments are easily as influential as Sonic Youth's, if not so overtly. Though uncredited, the Swans anticipated the 1990s notion of "post-rock" before Slint had played a note. They honed the visceral capabilities of severe dynamic changes before Mogwai plugged-in, and with their mid-90s epics, Gira recreated sublimely textured scores that dwarf everything Godspeed You Black Emperor! has done. The Swans were a band with an impossibly huge scope ­ good and evil, pain and bliss ­ but watching them struggle to find the sound and volume to explode all comfortable notions of the absolute opposite remains to this day exhilarating. As Pauline Kael wrote of Melville, the same is true of Gira: "he flails in all directionsŠand we respond to his Promethean torment, to the unresolved complexities."

With the Swans finished in 1997, Gira started Young God Records as an avenue to reissue some of the Swans material, produce and release records by younger bands and, foremost, to pursue a new musical project, the Angels of Light. What Young God has become is one of the most impressively aesthetic-minded labels since 4AD, and with a far more scaled-down and personal approach. What the Angels of Light have become is nothing short of the band worthy of succeeding the Swans: a more folk-based and acoustic-minded, though no less visceral or thematically grand, project. No Young God release has quite married the label's assets with the band's in quite the same way as the Angels of Light's We Were Alive, a live document from the 2001 tour, limited to 750 copies, signed and hand-numbered by Gira, with a woodcut cover, signed liner notes embossed with a seal, and available strictly from the Young God website. It is an intimate record in a way that most records tagged with that adjective actually aren't - the work of an auteur, from the silver ink to the resonating echo of strings.

We Were Alive opens elegantly with "Evangeline", the opening track on How I Loved You. The slightly muddled sound (though excellent by the standards of many live recordings) cripples the bass-end slightly as it does through much of the record, but it's a loss to be overcome by the thrill of the version's felt immediacy. The slow-build is as spine-tingling as ever, Gira's voice yearning over the rumble in its characteristically eerie, beyond-the-dead way. Since much of both the late-era Swans and Angels of Light's nuance was realized with recording finesse, We Were Alive takes advantage of the repetitive, bass-heavy, pulse of the early Swans while keeping things generally much more restrained. The live version of "Nations" pits Gira's voice over a thick, swirling swell of melodic noise, and thus works better as a live recording than "What You Were" with its arm's-distance, skeletal arrangement.

To my mind, the album's strongest section is its center ­ the twenty minutes that comprise "All Souls Rising" and "New York Girls". The former is sublime in establishing a jerking, maddening groove in the sound of thundering drums, crashing cymbals, jabbing bass, and Gira's voice, which wavers between long, reedy whines and sudden bursts of frantic barking. The song, apparently based on a book about Haitian slave riots, communicates its theme of colonial exorcism terrifyingly well. Before even knowing of its subject matter, Gira's spastic fits had me recalling images from Jean Rouch's Les Maitres Fous ­ the violent, jerky speed at which the Hauka threw their bodies at the ground during the course of their possession.

"New York Girls" effortlessly translates the power of "All Souls Rising" into a swampy musing that juxtaposes the atavistic, ritualistic quality of its instrumentation with a creeping, hushed duet between Gira and Dana Schechter ­ a voyeuristic mantra paying lustful homage to the city's shadowy inhabitants. Like the best of Gira's work, he draws loose connections between the contemporary urban nightmare and the dark, ancient forces that civilization has allegedly tamed. As the song trails out of its crescendo and back into the shadows, the floating keyboard lines tangle nicely with discordant, menacing strings before rising once again for a truly violent finish.

Getting back to my original touchstone, it's unfortunately logical, given the makeup of the music industry, that Gira's current projects don't receive the same level of attention as that of that other New York noise/art-rock band, and it's obvious that Gira wouldn't maintain the same level of artistic control over his product if they did. Still, it's bittersweet that at 750 copies, all proceeds to benefit the completion of the next Angels of Light studio album, this thing is still available for you to buy.