Michael Gira’s incarnation of Swans comes to a powerfully satisfying conclusion with the two-hour, two disc epic The Glowing Man. This version of Swans first surfaced in 2010 with the standard-length LP My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky.
This was followed by two gargantuan double-LP masterpieces, The Seer and To Be Kind. The Glowing Man is the same length as both of those two, and listening to it knowing it is the final release from this group adds an air of finality to the songs.
Each disc has four songs, and the two discs vary in scope and feel. With only eight songs in total, it’s tempting to write a purely track-by-track review, but I despise those and it would do The Glowing Man a disservice. The album needs to be viewed more as a single entity, or as two (each disc) at worst.
Disc 1 songs are all of a slower tempo, stately, comprised of musical theories that are very simple in nature – just the root note or chord of a song played in unison by the entire band in many of the songs’ movements. The songs start quietly, build into the main musical theme, feature a few minutes of furious chaos somewhere in the middle, and Gira’s dark, abstract intonations atop the proceedings. In other words, the standard art-rock, no-wave, intense music we’ve come to expect from Swans.
Each song does bring its own uniqueness to the table, and as with previous releases, it can be hard to believe a 10, 20, or 25-minute song flies by as these do. Opener “Clouds of Forgetting” is typical of what we’ve come to expect, although as mentioned slower-paced. “Clouds of Unknowing” starts with some insane cello work courtesy of guest musician Okkyung Lee, and has the most live, off the floor sound of all the songs.
“The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black” is the most trancelike of all songs on The Glowing Man, reminding one of the old Robert Fripp/Brian Eno collaborations (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, anyone?). Disc 1 closer “People Like Us” is a short throwaway track, unneeded and weakening the album.
The second disc has things picking up, with songs that are more up-tempo. “Frankie M” deals with drugs in an abstract way, and after eight minutes of droning, ambient intonations ebbing and flowing, a few more minutes of the trademark no-wave dissonance, the song becomes an almost buoyant ditty before descending into madness again at the end.
The highlight of the album is “When Will I Return?”, a short song dealing with abuse (and after the rape allegations leveled at Gira earlier this year by former protégé Larkin Grimm, perhaps a response?) and sung by Gira’s wife Jennifer. It starts with stark, graphic lyrics depicting an assault before turning into a hauntingly beautiful trance-like march, with Michael Gira droning in the background and Jennifer proclaiming over and over, “I’m alive! I’m alive!” This is a song that will stick with the listener, and one of their best from the last six years.
Title track “The Glowing Man” is the longest, again fitting the prototypical Swans arrangement, but with a surf-rock element thrown in for good measure. The final five minutes are unbridled fury, and could have been the end of the album. “Finally, Peace” is the last song, though, almost an exhalation after the previous efforts. It’s an uplifting number that doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the album, but keeping in mind it is the end of an era, it makes sense.
While of similar length and structure as The Seer and To Be Kind, The Glowing Man is not nearly as engrossing or difficult to absorb. It comes off as the denouement to the climax that was To Be Kind. Some listeners consider Swans a group of pretentious noisemakers and maybe they’re right.
But they are a group of musicians who perhaps more than any other band convey their emotions in such a pure manner through their instruments, one can’t help but admire them for their output, and thank Gira and friends for some of the most challenging music we’ve had the pleasure of digging into over the last six years.
(released June 17, 2016 on Young God Records)