Smells Like Infinite Sadness leaving meaning. Review

Swans ‘Leaving Meaning’ Review

Swans ‘Leaving Meaning’ Review: Michael Gira sheds one musical skin for another on an album full of equal parts doom and hope.

Swans are not your typical group. Where most bands start off with youthful verve (1982 to be exact) only to wane with age, Michael Gira’s post-punk outfit has only grown stronger. And longer–with most releases stretching over two discs.

Their most acclaimed and accomplished run began with 2012’s The Seer, followed by 2014’s To Be Kind and 2016’s The Glowing Man, a harrowing and formidable triptych of musical growth and experimentation that was centered around a core of musicians Gira first assembled in 2010.

That iteration of the band is no more. In a recent press release, Gira states that: Swans is now comprised of a revolving cast of musicians, selected for both their musical and personal character, chosen according to what I intuit best suits the atmosphere in which I’d like to see the songs I’ve written presented. In collaboration with me, the musicians, through their personality, skill and taste, contribute greatly to the arrangement of the material. They’re all people whose work I admire and whose company I personally enjoy.

And this new musical collective (including the likes of The Necks, Baby Dee and Ben Frost) contribute to Swans latest effort, Leaving Meaning (Oct. 25th, Young God Records)an album that builds on the strengths of this decades’ prior output while also offering subtle sonic differentiations–it’s overall more subdued and less oppressive than its predecessors, but that doesn’t qualify it as easy listening by a long shot.

Disc 1 opens with the soothing Hum, offering a cascade of feedback, plucked notes and percussion, before things begin in earnest with Annaline, a sparse piano flecked ballad that is one of the most affecting and gorgeous ballads Gira has ever written, with his croaking baritone offering soothing counterpoint to a composition that has the grandeur of a Broadway show tune.

The Hanging Man dials up the unease and dread that only Swans can deliver, working a discordant riff to the bone, with tribal percussion augmenting Gira’s mix of croons and screams, while Amnesia is hypnotic and folksy, elegiac and unnerving.

Sunfucker is another track brimming with unease, its middle-eastern tonalities and seasick vocals recalling I Am The Sun off the band’s 1995 album The Great Annihilator. The addition of what sounds like children’s backing vocals, tubular bells and buzzsaw synths only amplifies the stark atmospherics with lyrics that recall a chant by a macabre religious cult.

By contrast, the soothing title track’s washes of sound and rainy sonics recalls the vastness and spaciness of vintage Pink Floyd.

Disc 2 kicks off with Cathedral of Heaven, another eerie, droning track that speaks of arcane rituals (Please open my chest/Please curl in my nest/My tongue will turn black/From tasting your spit), which fades seamlessly into The Nub. Featuring disembodied vocals from Baby Dee, it has all the suspense of a horror film, an exercise in sustained tension.

First single It’s Coming In Real offers some soulful respite, its slight gospel vocals and stream of consciousness lyrics approximating a meditative state. This proves that Swans is the rare band that deals both in nihilism and uplift, the latter of which is also represented on the moving and plaintive What is This, which recalls both Mercury Rev and Sigur Ros with its simple yet beautiful grandeur. By the time its sleigh bell percussion and pulsing backing vocals arrive, it’s chill-inducing.

But Swans won’t let the listener off the hook so easily,  closing with My Phantom Limb, a track featuring multiple spoken word vocals played against each other. It’s deeply disorienting, recalling the ramblings of a mad man or a soothsayer. Its trance inducing yet disquieting, ending the album on an unresolved stirring note.

Leaving Meaning in many ways is an exercise in restraint: even when things get dark and foreboding, Gira and co. keep things slightly withdrawn, tightening the noose without total strangulation. It proves that Swans is a musical entity capable of endless iterations and mutations as long as Gira is the ringleader, immune to trends or age itself.