Review: Swans’ Actual Swan Song Is a Cloud of Unknowing on ‘The Glowing Man’
Release Date: June 17, 2016
Label: Young God
It had to end eventually. Six years after Michael Gira resurrected his pivotal drone outfit Swans in 2010, the time has come to lay them to rest. Over the past three decades, the eldritch New York-based band — led by Gira, keyboardist/vocalist Jarboe, and guitar wizard Norman Westberg — have expanded the boundaries of what we call “heavy music,” slowly morphing from a creeping no-wave outfit (on 1982’s Filth) into a muddied noise-rock group (circa 1987’s Children of God) and then, most recently, into symphonic rock villains. Following the band’s initial split in 1997, Gira turned his focus to Americana, releasing six albums with his surprisingly folksy side group, Angels of Light.
Despite his funereal lyrical affinities, Gira couldn’t resist another go-round — and so, with the financial assistance of the band’s rabid fanbase, he and Westberg staged a grand return, sans Jarboe. Backed by a cadre of musicians old (guitarist Christoph Hahn, percussionist Phil Puleo) and new (scary-good drummer Thor Harris, bassist Christopher Pravdica), the group went on to fill the void created in their absence in the most epic way possible: Behold 2012’s The Seer, the rare laser-focused double album. Its follow-up, 2014’s equally sprawling To Be Kind, proved just as dazzling, intensifying the textures and contrasts of its predecessor without overpowering its subtle, insidious melodies. Now, the time has come for the band’s second death with the arrival of The Glowing Man, yet another massive double album, billed as the final Swans album under the band’s current configuration. The eight-track behemoth clocks in at roughly two hours, with several tracks roaring well past the 20-minute mark. They’ve now made the equivalent of six full-lengths in four years where barely a second goes to waste.
Swans have never been ones for formalism, but The Glowing Man might be their most stream-of-consciousness effort yet. The band broadly follows basic dynamic principles – most songs here start soft and steadily ascend to an unhinged climax, before plummeting into the abyss — but they ultimately prove little more than a red herring. Take the 30-minute title track, no less a song than a slowly-spinning gyre, steadily garnering momentum in an enthralling, if predictable, swell — but just when you’re expecting another drone drop, Gira and company launch into a hyper-speed rendition of To Be Kind’s “Bring the Sun,” prompting the disorienting collapse of sounds past and present. The allusion may strike some as fan service, but it’s ultimately a reflection of the album’s improvisational gestation: Gira previously revealed that this album grew organically out of live performances of that song.
That’s not the only old material they’ve repurposed for this LP: the post-hardcore-tinged “The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black” features lyrics Gira originally composed for Sonic Youth’s Confusion of Sex track “The World Looks Red.” (“The sunlight is too much to bear,” he moans, dragging out the last syllable like a vampire languishing in the sun.) Like the band’s similarly liminal live performances, this album doesn’t move forward: Its energy seeps out from underneath the martial drumbeats and through the guitar riffs like a blackened pool, transmogrifying the listener’s initial dread into a wilted trance.
Even though The Glowing Man offers a satisfying, substantial conclusion to the Swans discography, listeners shouldn’t expect a now-or-never, paradigm-shifting opus — in fact, as far as final statements go, it’s rather underwhelming compared to its predecessors. Yes, it elegantly traces multiple retrospectives: Apart from illustrating their overarching development from industrial weirdos to terrifying, experimental clairvoyants, the album combines the organic, acoustic tendencies of The Seer with the goth-rock showcased on Kind, acting as both linchpin and facsimile for their best body of work to date. Yes, Gira’s poetry remains as creepy and intriguing as ever, its gravity matched only by the instrumentalists’ steeled discipline. But where else can he go besides further into the void, towards the event horizon? Considering these inevitable existential plateaus, you can’t blame the band for developing this epic trilogy as a triumphant summary of their storied career (and the troubling theses informing it), rather than one final progression.
Like all Swans albums, this one derives its cathartic force from the tension between man’s innate, carnal madness and the religious, social, and political systems struggling to keep his id contained. As a mirror of human nature itself, the band’s Freudian angst has no expiration date — and yet, it’s hard to overlook the uncanny, uncomfortable timing of Swans’ parting project. The album comes shortly after Gira’s onetime collaborator, Larkin Grimm, accused him of sexual assault, something that the frontman and his wife Jennifer have repeatedly, emphatically refuted.
These developments only compound the discomfort embedded in “When Will I Return?,” a deadened, unsettlingly calm duet between Michael and Jennifer which graphically details violence against women: “His hands are on my throat / My key is in his eye,” Jennifer bleats. “I’m splayed here on some curb.” Importantly, the song’s female subject doesn’t kowtow to her abuser, but defies him; even as she lays in the street bleeding and ashamed, she continues to proclaim, “Oh, I’m alive!,” refusing to grant him the privilege of total power. The thematic ambiguity metastasizes the album’s overarching agony.
Many psychologists contend that our ability to overcome trauma — as individuals, as nations, as a species — is largely contingent on a willingness to stage an endless confrontation with the agents responsible for our turmoil. With time and continued exposure, the demons’ influence typically fades — but Swans’ horror isn’t the type to drift softly into the night. Anticipating this bittersweet release, I revisited The Glowing Man shortly after the biggest mass shooting in American history, with the hope of finding shelter in the hypnotic darkness.
Big mistake: Halfway through “Cloud of Knowing,” just as Swans’ tidal wave of discordant harmonies and recurrent moaning begin to crest, a disturbing panorama materialized in the thick — slowly festering with interminable pain, rather than the band’s vague psychic ache. Closing track “Finally, Peace.” may end the album on a reflective high point, but by album’s end, I lay paralyzed, unable to decide if I desired a repeat or a reprieve. Unsettling as it may be, this conflict is a testament to Swans’ unparalleled ability to translate the absurd violence of the human condition into music that’s as intoxicating as it is intense.