The Week Glowing Man Review

How Swans became modern rock's greatest re-invention tale
Greg Cwik

Listening to Swans is a total-body experience that borders on being an out-of-body experience. You feel the music envelope you, as if drowning in the writhing sea of noise that seeps out of the wunderkammer consciousness of mad genius Michael Gira. The music washes over you, permeates you, seduces you, and abuses you. It's histrionic and huge and relentless, but can be intimate — savagely intimate. No rock band in recent memory has so deeply tapped into the existential ache of being alive.

Swans had a prodigious 14-year first phase, releasing 10 albums between 1982 and 1996. (The band went belly-up while Gira decided to focus on his folkier project, Angels of Light.) But Swans' final album of this period, the live LP Swans Are Dead, proved to be as misleading as any horror movie that contains the words "Final" or "Is Dead" in the title. Gira exhumed and reanimated the squalid no-wave band as an experimental drone-rock outfit in 2010, releasing My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky. At a comparatively slender 44 minutes, the album feels like a prelude to The Seer (2012), an aphotic, two-hour epic, all thundering percussion and pummeling torrents of rancor and, unexpectedly, a beautiful, somber paean sung by Karen O. It's one of modern rock's greatest self-reinventions.

The follow-up, To Be Kind (2014), shifts to a slightly more subdued sound. "A Little God in My Hands," a seven-minute slice of southern-fried swamp swing, suggests that Gira may have a sense of humor after all. After the relentless brutality of The Seer, "A Little God in My Hands," propelled by a hump-thump bass line, sharp vocal hooks, and that static burst of horns, is basically "Mambo Number 5" by comparison.

Which brings us to Swans' newest studio album, The Glowing Man, allegedly the final LP recorded by this iteration of Swans, and another astonishing transmogrification.

The album, the band's third straight masterpiece, is shocking because it isn't shocking. There are few mentions of bodily fluids and murder. Here, Gira is "Washing your skin." He's "Walking out," and "Reaching out." He does eventually sing, "Break a glass / Stab his eye / Choke his neck / Nothing's left / Butterfly / Butterfly," but this is still relatively tame by Gira's standards.

Instead of beginning with storms or lunacy, The Glowing Man drifts in on clouds. The first track, "Cloud of Forgetting," begins with the serene droning of strings, as acoustic guitars flutter by and Gira's reverb-steeped voice spills. It sounds like he's saying "She'll run," or maybe "Chil-dren," like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. While Swans has always mingled tranquility with hostility, "Cloud of Forgetting" offers no punishment. The storm is just as calm. When the 13-minute funereal song does swell towards the end, with the rhythm section slamming in unison, all that slamming and chugging feels inviting, not insidious — the climax of Brian Eno's recent "Fickle Sun (i)" feels harder.

Comprising eight tracks, three of which top the 20-minute mark, the nearly two-hour Glowing Man is another herculean endeavor, but it's also pensive and persistent. It has the most diverse display of musical styles of Swans' current phase — the rhythmic meditation of "The World Looks Red / The World Looks Black" gives way to a bustling hook that wouldn't be out of place in the opening credits of a heist movie. The album's most cacophonous moments are almost comfortable, enfolding you like a sweater of noise instead of an iron maiden.

For the first of its two hours, The Glowing Man feels like the fallout after all that bombardment on The Seer and To Be Kind. Even in the thralls of chaos in the second half, Gira seems more concerned with a Great Beauty than a Great Rapture. The 29-minute title track beats you into submission with persistent bludgeoning, but it goes on for so long, and is so rhythmic and steady, it doesn't disturb until it gives way to tranquility again. The album twists and turns and contorts like a mouth running the gamut of emotions, doubling back, contradicting itself, licking its teeth.

It's impossible to listen to The Glowing Man and not be cognizant of the sexual assault allegations against Gira. They cast an impermeable shadow. But it's worth noting that Gira's wife, Jennifer, herself a victim of sexual violence, delivers the most murderous moment on the album, singing a tale of revenge on the five-minute "When Will I Return?" It's chilling but oddly empowering, a victim getting vengeance on her attacker. "My life is mine to keep / I still kill him in my sleep," she croons as fingers slide over acoustic guitar strings. The song will undoubtedly be held up by various parties as either a defense or an offense. Regardless, it's devastatingly beautiful.