Unrelenting, Violent, Calculated, and Revelatory
Blood, gore, nails, bones, and shattered teeth. This is the dark and pungent world Swans has inhabited since forming as a project of Michael Gira in 1982. Since then, they have gone on to create some of the bleakest, most trying, and ultimately most compelling music to come from the experimental scene. Beginning as members of the No Wave scene out of New York, they quickly rose to prominence as a result of their unyielding brutality and ever shifting sonic pallet. Their 2016 release The Glowing Man, reported to be the final album released under the Swans moniker, balances brutality and accessibility to create one of the most compelling albums of the year.
The album wastes no time shaking hands or giving introductions, opting instead to savagely beat the listener about the head with roaring guitars and pounding drums in the dual openers “Cloud of Forgetting” and “Cloud of Unknowing.” The first track opts for a slightly calmer, yet still foreign ambient structure. Light tapping drums and ominously humming guitars are punctuated by Gira’s throaty chants in the background. The whole album feels very ritualistic, like the summoning of a forgotten Eldritch horror. By the end of the track, you hardly notice that the once quiet guitars and drums have erupted into a deliberate and violent pulse that threatens to bowl the listener over with its sheer sonic force. In this way, Swans takes cues from the structures most prevalent in 90s post rock, a scene that their album Soundtracks for the Blind played an integral role in building. The music swells to impossibly loud ranges and unrelentingly assails the listener before finally dropping back into faded guitar picking and a light rhythmic tapping on the drums. Each swell feels like the summiting of an insurmountable obstacle, and each decrescendo like a quiet breeze through a valley of tall grass. The album is stunning in its ability to remain calculated and intentional while still retaining an organic feeling of genuineness.
The album goes through a cycle of somewhat shorter tracks like “The World Looks Red,” “People Like Us,” and “When Will I Return,” the latter of which features Gira’s wife on vocals. Each of these tracks could have quite easily fallen into the category of filler between the main pieces of the album. Fortunately, Gira creates beautiful and varied compositions that serve as excellent and compelling palate cleansers in between the heftier main courses the album delivers. The main draw of the album is the title track “The Glowing Man,” which begins with a calming ambient pulse and slowly introduces guitars and tribal drums that pierce through the miasmal fog shrouding the track. At around 3:30 the track shifts in tone, the ether recedes into nothingness and the instruments rise in volume and aggression as Gira begins to chant. The whole track begins to feel very urgent and frantic, much in the same way a Mogwai track would. “The Glowing Man” ceases it’s aggression as quickly as it started and falls apart into a strange twinkling pattern for nearly a minute before smashing the listener’s face with a hammer. Pounding riffs drive ahead into the midsection of the song, conveying a harsh and driven brutality that we had only glimpsed in the earlier sections. Eventually, as the midsection closes out, the song latches onto a more traditional feeling riff and brings a more accessible element to the song that somehow manages to feel right at home despite being buried in the center of the most trying song of the album. Each piece of this track feels necessary, a phrase that is not used lightly when a song runs for over 28 minutes. Towards the end, the accessibility breaks down as a piano is smacked and guitars grind away at the boundaries of sanity and intensity before fading back into the opening ether, closing the track in perfect harmony, a statement not often heard when discussing Swans.
There is then, the elephant in the room. At this point, it is unfortunate, but imperative to discuss the ongoing situation between Michael Gira and Larkin Grimm. On February 25th 2016, Grimm alleged that there had been unwanted sexual advances toward her from Gira and when confronted he removed her from his “Young Gods” label. While Gira and his wife have vehemently denied these claims, he has acknowledged a brief romantic encounter occurred, but claims it never reached consummation. It is important to acknowledge the multiple sides to this story and that jumping to conclusions hurts both parties. As far as this situation relates back to the album, it is worth noting that while a majority of the album was recorded prior to these allegations, it is difficult to imagine Gira didn’t add flourishes (or scars) to more accurately convey his state of mind following these accusations.
The Glowing Man stands out strongly as one of the most compelling pieces of music released under the Swans moniker. It balances the brutality of pre-hiatus Swans and the long epic form song structures of their post-hiatus releases. The album is a visible and important entry into the enigmatic and troubled lexicon of Michael Gira, who has once again made a compelling argument for his canonization as one of the most talented sonic artists of the last 30 years. This album is a fitting exit piece for Swans, leaving the listener content but eager to see what puzzles the now separated pieces will find themselves in.