I say ‘not’ a review because I just don’t do that sort of thing these days. I can’t remember the last time I felt compelled to review an album of any sort (although I do recall time I reviewed the Zeni Geva / Steve Albini disc All Right You Little Bastards and the album’s engineer emailed me to express his admiration for the writeup…that was nice.). But seeing as this will be my last opportunity to weigh on a new Swans album for a good long while, I figure why the hell not?
Anyway, I spent a good am0unt of time with the latest (last?) Swans release The Glowing Man this weekend and I gotta say – it’s a seriously heavy piece of work. Which is probably no surprise if you’re familiar with Swans. Gira and his rotating cast of collaborators have long been one of rock’s most legendarily uncompromising acts, and with The Glowing Man – which reportedly will be Gira’s last outing with his current stable – Swans are reaching back to levels of darkness and despair I’ve not seen from the band since their early days. In fact, I’d go so far as to say The Glowing Man reminds me of a more polished iteration of Filth, which is itself a seething monolith of anger and spite which to this day has few rivals.
Polished is a relative term, however – this isn’t Dream of the Blue Turtles-polished, but rather honed. If Filth was a sledgehammer, The Glowing Man is a straight razor. One thing is clear – after nearly forty years, Gira’s just as capable of turning darknesss into sound as he ever was. The tools might be a bit different, but they’re just as effective. Maybe moreso.
I’m trying hard not to mention the cloud surrounding this album’s release. If you Google Gira’s name you’ll see what I’m talking about. I have my own opinions about the subject which I’ll refrain from addressing – suffice to say it’s hard not to intertwine the allegations levied at Mr. Gira and the content of The Glowing Man…an album which speaks at length about power, domination, and the violence that results from power imbalances.
“His hands are on my throat / My key is in his eye / I’m splayed here on some curb /
Shards of glass / A starry night / When will this pig-man stop? / His stink is like a dog” Gira’s wife Jennifer intones on ‘When Will I Return?’, a tune penned by Gira about his wife’s own experience with sexual predation. It’s harrowing and powerful.
At five-and-a-half minutes, it also happens to be one of the album’s shorter tracks. The latest iteration of the band has become known for crafting lengthy swirling soundscapes that start calm and build to a hurricane of fury and thunder. The Glowing Man doesn’t deviate from this pattern – the album’s first two tracks, a pair of songs called ‘Cloud of Forgetting’ and ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ (described by Gira as ‘hymns’) end just short of the forty-minute mark.with the latter clocking in at a hair over 25 minutes.
There’s something remarkable about the Swans and Gira’s dedication to his singular musical vision. I’ve been listening to them avidly since the mid 80’s and I can think of few bands whose sound has changed so dramatically and yet, at the same time, stayed as true to their idiom as Swans. Even the Bill Laswell-produced The Burning World was, in its’ own weird way, a suitable addition to the fabric of Swans artistic tapestry (though Gira himself would probably blanche at the notion, having publicly disowned the work on multiple occasions. Also, I note with some amusement that the first two tracks of The Glowing Man are nearly as long as the entirety of The Burning World).
That said – if The Glowing Man represents a wake of sorts for the band’s current incarnation, it’s one hell of a high point to go out on. As I stated at the outset, there’s a fury to this thing that is iridescent – a white-hot rage that reminds me of the band’s early days. Norman Westberg, who was part of the band’s Filth lineup (and every lineup through 1995’s The Great Annihilator), certainly does his part to maintain the cacophony…but it’s not just the rattle and noise. The Glowing Man often descends into quiet, brooding malice – which is good, because Swans’ particular brand of noise works by being every bit as beautiful as it is ugly.
It’s interesting that – after 90+ minutes of seesawing between quiet anger and skull-hammering rage the album lands on its’ cathartic final note – the sparkling, beautiful ‘Finally, Peace’. It’s not unfamiliar territory – Gira has explored the lighter side of things before…but it’s nice to come up for air after nearly two solid hours of sonic anguish. And, as the final sound we’ll hear from this particular iteration of Swans, it’s perfectly fitting.
I hope this new period of torpor doesn’t last as long as the last one – I’d rather not wait 13 years for a new Swans album again. But if it does – or if this is the last we ever hear of them – I think I can safely say they left us on a high note.