Angels of Light Sing Other People | Review | Joel Dunham

my favorite album of the year so far

“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” -St. Paul. I highly doubt that Michael Gira named his songwriting project Angels of Light without knowledge of this passage of the New Testament.* By assuming the name’s and the passage’s coexistence are merely coincidental, we pass up the opportunity to complement Gira with a clever witticism that he undoubtedly deserves. Paul refers to demons dressing themselves as “angels of light.” If there ever was a demon in the music world, it’s Gira. He was one of the principal members of the Swans, an 80’s sludge rock band whose nihilism, sadistic lyrics, bludgeoning and unrelenting sound is too nasty even for this noise-o-phile. Since disbanding the Swans, Gira moved into seemingly the opposite direction: folk. Although his compositions are now better described as “pretty” rather than “brutal,” Gira still retains the edge of his early devilishness. Angels of Light Sing Other People, the fourth Angels of Light LP, is my favorite album of the year so far. On Other People Michael Gira for the first time uses Akron/Family, a group on his Young God label, as his formal backup band. Akron/Family are a highly innovative band; read Darren Susin’s review of their debut on Young God here, if you’re interested. What’s particularly interesting is that Akron/Family has a playful sound… something we usually can’t attribute to Gira. However, Gira allowed the Akron/Family members to be active participants in the songwriting process, which results in a strange tension between Gira’s stark, haunting contributions and Akron/Family’s broad range of instrumentation, use of humor, and strange sing-along backup vocals. Gira’s voice especially doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the record on first listen, but later listens prove this dynamic to be one of the best and most unique parts of the album. While the instrumentation is almost entirely acoustic, Other People sounds remarkably full. Strings, harmonicas, mandolins, glockenspiels, mouth band interludes, whistling in imitation of cuckoo clocks… although there are many abrupt shifts in atmosphere, Gira successfully harnesses Akron/Family’s playful and almost random innovation for the sake of each song. Unlike some of his earlier work, Gira intentionally eschews playing noise for noise’s sake, but rather ends each song when it should; quickly if need be. As a result, each track is beautifully independent, carries its own dramatic arc, and sounds unlike any other on the album. However, Gira also did a good job ordering the songs to provide excellent pacing, which makes Other People such a wonderful album as a whole. Gira’s subject matter wanders from his band’s bus driver (I’m guessing) on “My Friend Thor” to child pop stars (“The Kid Is Already Breaking”) to a modern take on the murder ballad (“Jackie’s Spine”) to a reverse-murder-ballad in which a female is the murderer and the male is the victim (“My Sister Said.”) Much of the material is more than a little disturbing: a mosquito-ridden demon/swamp creature makes an appearance, as does (I’m guessing again) the whore of Babylon from the Revelation. Particularly harrowing is the panoply of guitar plucks that attack the listener throughout “Michael’s White Hands,” which make a headlong plunge to destruction in a song about Michael Jackson. Need I go into any details to prove to you this one is disturbing? However, Gira isn’t all fire and brimstone. Many pieces retain a sort of introspective, ironic sense of humor. “Your drawings: disturbing. Your sex drive: alarming. The hair on your body would clothe a small nation.” Or another: “Late nights in the week, then the drunks will come in. Some are pathetic, and some are my friends.” All in all, Gira and his Akron/Family have created a practically flawless work. Have no doubt that this will be one of my nominations for best of 2005.