Brainwashed leaving meaning. Review
Sunday, 27 October 2019 17:33 Creaig Dunton
Michael Gira may have announced that Leaving Meaning would feature Swans continuing in a different form after closing the book on The Glowing Man in 2016. The change has been comparably more subtle than the stylistic shifts of the band throughout their nearly 40 year career, but the progress is distinct. This record draws not only from the recent albums, but also Gira's work with the interim Angels of Light project as well. The album is the perfect blend of the past and the recent, but looks direction to the future as well.
The most significant difference between this album and the recent Swans catalogue is essentially Gira dialing back the intensity both in arrangements and performance. This is abundantly clear on a song such as "Annaline": shimmering accents drift above sparse piano and acoustic guitar, with Gira's vocals front and center. The sound is rather consistent with what he was doing with The Angels of Light in the early part of the 2000s: stripped down folk-y ballads with an experimental undercurrent throughout. On "What is This?," Swans go a bit further, melding those folk elements into an almost 1960s pop number that is brilliant, and somewhat out of character.
The folk sound should not come as a surprise, because many of the band members from Angels of Light are present. The core band here is Kristof Hahn on guitars (a member of Angels of Light as well as recent Swans), drummer Larry Mullins, who played with Angels of Light, and bassist/keyboardist Yoyo Roehm. There are also a significant number of guest appearances, and while this is nothing new for a Swans record, the list is particularly expansive. Most notably is a slew of Angels of Light and Swans collaborators: Thor Harris, Christopher Pravdica, Dana Schechter, Phil Puleo, Paul Wallfisch, and Norman Westberg, who still contributes some guitar. Both Anna and Maria von Hausswolff supply choral vocals, and “The Nub” is a completely different line-up, featuring The Necks and Baby Dee on vocals.
Structure and composition is another point where Leaving Meaning departs from the recent works. For one, a quick scan of the song lengths show that Gira has reined things in a bit compared to The Glowing Man. There are no near-half hour songs here, and the longest ones max out around 12 minutes. This change also impacts the song structures themselves. I likened the other recent albums to a rock take on Hermann Nitsch's compositions: long, extended periods of repetition culminating is pummeling, intense outbursts of sound.
The repetition is still all over this album, but here in the more restrained context it feels more pleasantly hypnotic than tension building. At times it seems like Gira is intentionally toying with expectations of this. The reworking of "Amnesia" from 1992's Love of Life transforms the song from its original vaguely goth rock/industrial sound into an acoustic ballad. There is a symphonic build just before the chorus, but extremely short lived and quickly falls away, never giving the visceral relief it hints at.
At other times, the line between the other recent material is a bit more direct. "The Hanging Man" has that oddly funky, blues lurch and mechanical repetition so prominent on The Glowing Man and The Seer, but the intensity held back a bit, even when Gira goes into full "speaking-in-tongues" mode. The same style permeates "Some New Things," which is a hypnotically repeating but conventionally rock sounding piece. "Sunfucker" is another song that calls back to the last few albums, but with the von Hausswolff's choral backing vocals and Gira's layered chanting vocal delivery, the feel starts to drift into snake handling religious revival territory.
Given the relatively short time between Michael Gira's announcement of the reconfiguration of Swans and this newest release, it is not surprising that the sound is not too far removed from the sprawling trilogy of the most recent albums (The Seer, To Be Kind, The Glowing Man). The shift may not be as drastic as it was transitioning from Children of God to The Burning World, or Soundtracks for the Blind into My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, but it is clear that Gira does not want to fall into a creative rut. Those recent records were great, but to have stylistically followed the same trend into a fourth double album would have been a bit too much. Leaving Meaning manages to brilliantly retain the sound, but change things around to make it sound familiar, yet entirely new and revitalized and thankfully seems to hint at more to come.