Under the Radar Mag leaving meaning. Review
Nov 26, 2019 WEB EXCLUSIVE
There's a moment on "The Nub," the 12-plus minute eighth track on leaving meaning, the 15th official studio album by Swans and the first with this line-up—The Necks are doing a stellar job backing one-true-Swan Michael Gira with their orchestral, atmospheric hesitations and runs—tension's building across the violin and keys and then slowly but suddenly the spectral horrors of the lyric "I'm naked, I'm drifting/In black milk that I'm drinking." The lyric lands and leads to other, even farther-out, space-sickening imagery. It drones and it drones and it drones and it's simultaneously transportive and terrifying. An obtuse image implants in the mind and feels unshakeable. Are we here, listening to the mighty Swans because we like to be tortured?
About a half an hour ago things had started so differently with the orchestral rumble—ominous, portentous, malevolent but specked with dots and dashes of light—of opener "Hum" and swiftly delivered follow-up "Annaline," a gleaming musical waterfall backdrop provided for Gira's crackling baritone as he croaks "Right here and right now, the first night of our lives" on what sounds like his most optimistic song in...well...a while? This prepares us for a different, gentler, perhaps even brighter Swans album. We do not get that.
As soon as that tribal rhythm picks up on the fucking horribly titled "The Hanging Man" we know we're in for some straight up doom and rigorous spiritual self-investigation. "I am the hanging man," roars Gira. Of course you are, Michael. Of course you are. It's a song that perhaps depicts some kind of inter-dimensional spiritual sex ritual. It's hefty—heavy as bastards in fact, without resorting to volume for impact. Gira's mastery over the dynamic presentation of his music has extended into a quieter arena altogether this time around—though nonetheless disturbing, no less heavy in the truest sense.
"Amnesia" gives us the biggest, most surprising pounding of the record—in which a vast choral refrain dominates a soundscape speckled with disembodied children's giggling and lines like the none-more absolute "Everything human is necessarily wrong."
"Funereal" doesn't begin to cover the tone of epic, pitch-black songs like, ahem, "Sunfucker," which sounds like an anxiety attack; unusual, uncomfortable vocal phrasing set to repetition and discord, a Krautrock beat dragging along the tale of an Aztec ritual. Or the lightweight banter of "Cathedrals of Heaven," a J.G. Ballard-inspired ballad which offers this height of Swans-romance-"I'm thinking your thoughts/You're wearing my lips"—then later asks painfully "Who made us like this?"
A seemingly endless parade of disquieting whispers, brutalizing screams, atonal babbling, dirge repetition, and with only one obviously duff lyric ("Hungry like a monkey" won't pass muster however shamanic you are), this is a magnificent dark companion for listeners needing a deep dive into the abyss.
"What Is This" arrives late—a stunning, gorgeous torch song that inverts the lyric of "The Nub" nicely—"There is a star in my throat/In a voice, there is hope/In a space in-between/Runs the milk of release."
The latest iteration of Gira's fierce, frightening Swans is a quieter, subtler beast perhaps—but it's no less an intense, oppressive, challenging, and magical experience than those created on vinyl by their recent "classic" lineup. Torture it may be, but it's never felt so sweet. (www.younggodrecords.com)
Author rating: 8/10