Angels of Light | Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home | Review

Dominique Leone

lends an epic, almost timeless quality that goes a long way toward fleshing out Gira's often-mythological way with words

To a certain extent, most of us are still living sheltered lives, insofar as we rarely confront our spirituality, reject our families, or cross our internal lines of social decency. Beliefs and codes vary from person to person like wardrobes, but very few people are willful, foolish or terminally self-aware enough to defy their own. Cultural expectations-- "absurd and malignant" or otherwise-- have sway, and the precious, indecent few who manage to outrun them are generally viewed as outcasts or criminals (though sometimes, as prophets). Aside from whatever law they break, criminals rob us of our conventions: through acts of violence and upheaval, they force us to confront our boundaries. For some, ignoring the tenuous line between right and wrong is an easy feat, but for others, personal demons are as controlling as any backlog of cultural norms. From the sound of Everything is Good Here/Please Come Home, Angels of Light (and Young God figurehead Michael Gira) may yet have demons to master, and boundaries to set.

Gira broached straightforward indecency long ago, via his most infamous and acclaimed project, Swans. In the mid-80s, when even the most ruthlessly earnest punks were only beginning to come to terms with a "responsible" definition of anarchy, Gira and then-partner Jarboe were speaking-- sometimes literally-- of masochistic torture and humiliating, brutal sex, over drastically compressed drones and industrial propulsion. When the decade closed in an alternative rock flourish, Swans thrust forward by leaps and bounds: Love of Life, The Great Annihilator and especially Soundtracks for the Blind predicted Godspeed You Black Emperor! and all manner of dark-ambient music, though thematically, Swans still seemed to equate God with a dominatrix. Gira's post-Swans (read: post-Jarboe) folk collective, The Angels of Light, matches his previous band's penchant for mythic grandeur, with more muted dynamics, if not sentiment. Everything Is Good Here is their third release, and it's as disturbing as it is wonderful.

According to Gira, the album is a response to various personal, historical and political disasters. In some ways, that cryptic declaration takes the edge off the songs, as without pretense there's vast room for interpretation in his lyrics. Where "Palisades" might read as a particularly bitter response to suicide-- "Reasons won't come/ And no one will regret that you're gone"-- it could as easily lament claustrophobic personal terror: "Do you see how they ruined your mind? Do you see how they ruined your life?" Gira's smoke-stained baritone barely carries the words over acoustic guitar and delicate bell-tones, though later he verges on overtaking a serene arrangement of church bells and a children's choir. The altogether peaceful "Kosinsky"-- with its deft, gently strummed electric guitar and bright fiddle motif-- initially reads as a tender love song; Gira's description of hair like "translucent, liquid light" and the "rhythm of your breathing" seem poignant, though he again blurs boundaries by admitting he looks on his love with "the eyes of an animal."

The textural range of Everything Is Good Here lends an epic, almost timeless quality that goes a long way toward fleshing out Gira's often-mythological way with words. "All Souls' Rising" features impressions of pagan ritual, and self-purification via "the cull of foreign bone" and forcing "the blue smoke in... [to] fill the sack of skin." The relentless hammer of drums and murky stew of bass, organ and guitar-- not to mention Gira's own droning war cries-- conjure scenes of violent sacrifice and the chaotic laws of a still-dominant Earth.

Contrarily, the midtempo, near-Beatles "Sunset Park" reveals little in its single repeated line, "She brings some/ She'll bring one," but betrays a brilliant optimism in Gira's simple, dignified melody, and wall of shimmering guitars. Later, on "Wedding", an extended, gently strummed introduction is offset by ominous brass tones and the dissonant children's choir, giving way to Gira's rugged moan. The choir caps each phrase with angelic harmonies, quite removed from the intentionally grotesque sound of Swans, or even scattered moments on this album. As a whole, Everything Is Good Here is at once breathtaking and, like a great many Gira releases, simply too much.

The overwhelming impression is one of acceptance and redemption, despite repeatedly bleak (or at best, mysterious) narration from Gira. The production helps, but digging deeper into its lyrics, it seems that, rather than prolong an inner struggle, Angels of Light seek salvation. "What Will Come" openly requests that God "save us... from what will come," though it's difficult to reconcile Gira's leap of faith after an album's worth of explicitly self-empowering, judgmental narrative, clouded by contradiction. Nevertheless, music that resonates with as much emotional weight and vital abandon is rare, and though I'm less inclined to look for answers in the mix than revel in its chaos, Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home is a commendable, heady experience.