Review: Swans – The Glowing Man
National Music Reviews
The Glowing Man
Young God Records
Street Date: 06.17
Swans = Jesus thrashing the tables in the Temple + Howling Wolf + Art Ensemble of Chicago
If an artist’s career always begins tomorrow, as James Whistler once mused, then what happens when one of those tomorrows never comes? Being an artist is not getting a fine arts degree, working for 30 years and then giving way to retirement. Being an artist is living, breathing, eating, disposing, destroying, rebuilding and recreating every day. Michael Gira embodies the definition of an artist, even though he claims that The Glowing Man will mark the end of Swans’ arguably finest period in their 35-year history. Unlike the band’s previous three offerings, The Glowing Man crafts a two-hour elegiac ending to a chain of mordant masterpieces unprecedented in music history.
Fourth in an amazing polyptych of albums that began with 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, The Glowing Man features a curtain call with the band’s best lineup: guitarists Christopher Hahn and Norman Westberg, bassist Chris Pradvica and drummers Thor Harris and Phil Puleo, with a little help from Ministry and Nine Inch Nails drummer Bill Rieflin in the studio. The band focuses on space and silence throughout The Glowing Man, distancing itself from the previous three, where punitive percussion and guitar sounds like slaughterhouses maintained the band’s penchant for violence. The album opens with “Cloud of Forgetting,” where synths swell free and boundless until the single-chord rhythm played by Gira interrupts the brief meditative movement. The 12-plus-minute epic includes intermittent piano glissandos. When Gira’s voice emerges four minutes later, his voice is pained, but not with disdain. It is grief-stricken. Yet, his long, drawn-out notes move at the speed of woe. “Cloud of Forgetting” sets the table for the entirety of the album, but not without delving into vicious battles between the unknown time that remains and death.
For a few seconds during the intro of the album’s second track, “Cloud of Unknowing,” disorientation comes in the shape of a band, like an orchestra settled in a pit of battle, preparing for war. The 25-minute track (!) resembles the Swans motif—grinding rhythms and disquieting guitars rumbling over Gira’s deep clarion call for annihilation. Midway through the song, its arrangement falls apart, piece by piece, descending into more ruminative moments. Gira chants into the eternal and hears nothing in return. Dissatisfied with the answer, the band destroys what remains without remorse.
Sonic Youth stole the words from Confusion Is Sex’s “The World Looks Red” from Gira, so Gira stole them back on “The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black.” If there existed such a thing as an obvious single for Swans, this track would have to do. Like pulling skin from a live person, Thor and Puelo’s percussion perform differing tempos, struggling to find a comfortable groove. Gira repeats “The world looks red/The world looks back,” not like a mantra, but like a tortured lullaby. Devoid of melody or mercy, the track—one of the album’s shortest, at 14-minutes—falls apart by design, ending without resolution.
In the spirit of chanting Buddhist Thai monks, “Frankie M” marks Swans’ most adventurous and heartfelt effort to date, featuring ruminative vocals by Gira and company. Airless, they chant in unison with every attempt to find peace in the moment. Sounds explode like car bombs, breaking the calm, only to return at the 12-minute mark with Gira’s ode to Frankie M., a character who succumbs becomes enslaved by heroin. Strangely, however, the track ends with a hint of optimism.
Creating chaos is an art form. This is nothing new or noteworthy for Swans. Moments emerge in The Glowing Man reminiscent of Cop and Children of God. Purists see this period without Jarboe, the jazz-trained vocalist who breathed puffs of sweetness into Gira’s thick bitterness. From Children of God to Soundtracks for the Blind, she infused her melodicism into the band, influencing them enough to cover Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” a song that features acoustic guitars and lush harmonies—conversely, their flair for taking risks waned. Including the last three releases, The Glowing Man is the definition of making chaos and destruction and annihilation things of beauty to be admired. (Urban Lounge, 09.09) –Stephan Wyatt