One of the most challenging bands of the past 35 years, Swans emerged out of New York’s no wave scene in the early 1980’s alongside the likes of Sonic Youth. Revolving around the uncompromising Michael Gira, their early material was a terrifyingly nihilistic and aggressive blend of industrial and noise rock played live at vomit inducing volumes. The influence of Gira’s then partner Jarboe would gradually lead in the toning down of Swans sound to include various forms of experimental rock, folk and later electronics, with decision to dissolve the band coming while they were at their peak in 1997.
After a decade of leading the folk-driven Angels of Light, Gira decided it was time to bring Swans back to life. On the three albums since their return in 2010, the second incarnation of the band has gone from strength to strength. 2012’s ‘The Seer’ and 2014’s ‘To Be Kind’ being among their greatest releases, showing them to be masters of building tension using repetition in creative and complex ways. The third-part in a trilogy of double albums spanning two hours, ‘The Glowing Man’ brings to a close another chapter, with Gira planning to disband the current line-up after just six years together in order to “shake things up” with a “revolving cast of collaborators“.
‘The Glowing Man’ is as ambitious and intense as its predecessors, but it’s an overall gentler and more reflective album. Beginning with the 38-minute “prayers“, ‘Cloud of Forgetting’ and ‘Cloud of Unknowing’, it’s the shorter opener which captivates with its menacing mix of tremolo-picked guitar and piano, later bursting into squalling and heavy riffing, whereas its longer and darker sister is the most likely candidate to test your patience during what is a largely uneventful 25-minutes. The first-half quickly picks itself back up again though, starting with the restless and hypnotic ‘The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black’ and ending with the gorgeous gothic-folk farewell of ‘People Like Us’.
On disc-two, Swans produce what is arguably their finest hour of music. Starting with the epic 20-minute ‘Frankie M’, with its long and eerie build-up which suddenly breaks into a hooky strut, before veering off into a guitar-driven finale. ‘When Will I Return?’, a duet with Gira’s wife Jennifer about her attempted kidnapping seven years earlier, is one of the most emotionally powerful songs you’re likely to hear all year. Then there’s the title-track, a 30-minute monster which moves between floating sections and walls of noise, before transforming into a mechanical Stooges-like stomp. The album closes with another folky farewell on ‘Finally, Peace.’, the most uplifting thing Swans have ever written.
There were some doubters when Gira announced he was reactivating Swans in 2010, but even some of their most loyal fans will have been pleasantly surprised at just how good they’ve been on the material they’ve released since then. ‘The Glowing Man’ serves as fitting end to this second incarnation, hopefully it won’t be too long before Gira reveals his plans for Swans III.
‘The Glowing Man’ is out now via Mute and Young God
This Swans article was written by Daniel Kirby, a GIGsoup contributor.