Angels of Light | Everything is Good Here | Review

village voice | Sasha Frere-Jones

wonderfully unpredictable

...In the early '80s, he started the ultimate all-or-nothing band, Swans, who actually made good on downtown's fascination with terror and power. The standard Swans approach was two basses, an unidentified mass of guitar, and Gira's baritone howl all laying into a drastically slow riff for what felt like an hour. No fun, my babe, no fun, but also kind of beautiful. The excess might suggest a romantic, but Gira's always been a puritan. His early lyrics combined the disembodied pronouns of Jenny Holzer's slogans with critical flags (rape, flesh, power, slaves, cops). Repeat it like liturgy and the result is performance-art rock that industrial goths watered down for big bux throughout the '90s: "Unconscious repression degrades the real thing/You can't kill a criminal need/When you're polluted with fear you need comfort/You can't kill what you don't see." My brother went to New York and all he got was this lousy art-rock record!

Everyone else sounded tentative next to the Swans, even if you wanted nothing to do with them. Swans' ability to return every measure like an ox as strong as the ox they had been five minutes before was no joke. That claustrophobic uni-riff punishment, which mirrored Gira's nightmares of physical confinement, had run its course by the late '80s. So he guided Swans toward something like modern plainchant, a move that suggested repentance for all the tinnitus Swans had caused the first time. Swans ended in 1997, and Gira has fused the two phases for his current band, the Angels of Light, who sound not unlike an amateur community orchestra—guitars submerged but grim determination intact. Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home, the third AOL album, follows 2001's near perfect How I Loved You. Gira's voice is a more powerful instrument than Cave's, able to go credibly from Barry White implications to unchecked hollering. His lyrics still face the horror, and the subject pronoun is generally "she," but he's traded abstractions for people: "She waited too long, then she waited some more. Counting the hours, how much can you hate? And what does she feel, when she finally breaks?"

Wonderfully unpredictable, the Angels of Light sound a bit like a grouchy Eastern European folk band, or the CliffsNotes version of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Just when their plodding begins to, you know, plod, a tack piano or harmonica surges up and over the edge of the mix to keep hope alive. (If anyone was going to score the Red Army's march toward Berlin, it would be the Angels.) The album's success depends on a great ambient room sound courtesy of Martin Bisi, the guy who recorded a lot of '80s groovy ghoulie music the first time around.

Gira's move from Calvinism to Protestantism, so to speak, was a tipping-point move; adding a little air to his vision has made it geometrically easier for the rest of us to join in. He's playing chicken with some bad, bad forces, driven by the need to figure out how redemption works and what pain is for. They're the same questions he's always asked, but he's listening for the answers now. Whether Gira's religion is better than Cave's valentine depends on what ails you. Consult your doctor.