Swans are one of the last great vanguards of rock music. With vast swathes of the guitar music landscape surrendering to revivalism and outright derivitism, Swans and their new album, The Glowing Man, are a nostalgic reminder of rock’s bolder and more exciting past.
We are told by bandleader Michael Gira that this is the final chapter of the bands current incarnation which emerged in 2010 with My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky. The Glowing Man is a poignant summarisation of this period, a collage of the band’s relentlessly experimental and eclectic stylistic journey that has played out over the past six years. At almost two hours in length and boasting three twenty-minute long ‘epics’, the album continues the mammoth approach of The Seer and To be Kind but trades much of their tight, rhythmic intensity, for a more hypnotic and even at times delicate approach. But don’t be deceived, none of the band’s classic darkness has receded.
Perhaps the most remarkable element of Swans’ songwriting character on this record is the intricate balance of hypnotic beauty and ominous intensity. Throughout the record these two elements are constantly at battle, episodically exchanging blows at one another. ‘Cloud of Unknowing’, a gargantuan, 25 minute long epic, opens with chilling, bird-like strings before suddenly descending into a black hole of guitar noise and rolling, chaotic drums. The track then eases into a gigantic, half-time groove, with Gira chanting in the distance with a mantra like tone. The intensity then returns, before it again disperses into a haze of chants, bells and shimmers. This track epitomises The Glowing Man‘s remarkably fluid songwriting character; lucid, disconcerting and at times utterly disorientating, ebbing and flowing between outright assaults and healing calm. ‘Frankie M’, as well as the album’s title track, further showcases this approach, with the latter evoking some classic (and perhaps insulting) prog/krautrock references in my mind.
Despite the enormity and significance of these three tracks (which take up no less than half the albums playback time), Glowing Man’s shorter pieces are the albums connective tissue, essential for maintaining the album’s sentiment and narrative line. The neo-folk of ‘When Will I Return?’ and the awkward, plodding ‘People Like Us’ provide the listener with refrain and a more intimate, relatable lyrical experience.
The album’s closer ‘Finally Peace’, puts a dramatic full stop on all the chaos that has unfolded. One imagines Gira as an almighty priest, reaching out to god himself and chanting the story of earth’s creation: “All creation is hollow, and a picture’s a shadow, just a symptom of love, with a lack of a cause, now the city’s dissolving, and heaven’s inhaling, While the ocean is thinking of a surface reflecting, your glorious mind, your glorious mind. your glorious mind.” It is an apt finale to a truly stunning yet exhausting body of work. In modern music, I am lost for a comparison of another band that rival Swans’ unrelenting ambition and idiosyncratic style. I look forward to their re-emergence, in whatever form that may be.
The Glowing Man is out now via Young God/Mute