Instagram Soundcloud Spotify

Unraveling the Infinite – Swans’ “The Glowing Man”

Written by:

The future, as usual, is a wild animal, prowling a hazy perimeter, its only allegiance to unpredictability as it picks its way through death, hope, boredom, and peril. This is Swans last album with what has become its late classic – and to this listener most potent – line-up (Michael Gira, Norman Westberg, Christoph Hahn, Phil Puleo, Christopher Pravdica, Thor Harris, with heavy presence from Bill Rieflin) and no one knows with even a shred of certainty what that prowling beast will bring. So for now we focus on the bellowing, hallowed present, and it’s called The Glowing Man.

Now, one might say, and justifiably, that the ‘present’ consists of much more than whatever album one’s listening to no matter its portent, its gravity, the apparent weight of its numinous presence. In almost every case, of course, that person would be correct. However, in the case of a new Swans album, especially one that runs the length of of three LPs and to a greater extent than before – an accomplishment when one considers their body of work this century alone – has the word ‘opus’ hovering above its every surging movement, that person is very wrong. Swans albums, especially these days, rumble well past ‘immersive’ or ‘important’ to the point they actually seem to be consuming time, the noise the band makes, these pieces they conjure, pulling everything around you in the moment into a whorling vortex of white light and white heat. It’s the sound, in a sense, of pure power where one doesn’t so much listen as get lost in a posture of absorption as if in some lotus position of brutal divinity. The pleasure in experiencing a Swans album has never been less than a dark and challenging one where the factors of immensity don’t just suggest events emotionally akin to the shifting of tectonic plates but as well the idea that something unknowable but profoundly tangible is at stake. In short, it’s a serious business taking on a post-millennial Swans album, not for the easily unnerved, a fact that’s redoubled with every release. This isn’t to say one abandons enjoyment the second the needle drops – so not the case as to be apostasy – but instead recalibrates it so as to better adapt to the monstrous glories therein, glories The Glowing Man embodies in excelsis.

First, to provide some editorial cover, let it be said that if the point here was to create a piece of work that transcends description, the band have succeeded beyond the most wildly imagined syntax. Indeed it can feel, standing staring at this massif of sound, that any attempt to represent it in text equates to capturing Everest on an Etch A Sketch. And yet it inspires, as if the very act of vaulting past the limits of observable human endeavor as has seemed Swans intention with every (sur)passing release, can’t help but trigger a similar effort on the page, which, if we’ve learned anything about anything, should be held as art’s truest purpose.

Conveyed in the broadest stroke imaginable, The Glowing Man plays as a whole like a lost, gorgeously restored Eisenstein film, hallucinatory drifts of rolling, auditory imagery crossing the screen of our consciousness in great gray flurries meant, at a guess, to illustrate the fleeting and powerful mystery of this existence we all share. The human condition, as well the wider environment with which it’s enmeshed in teeming symbiosis, breathes and struggles and dies and is reborn inside these grooves, the majestically heavy, glacially nimble melodies, the often Wagnerian thunder that permeates the arrangements (“Frankie M,” I swear, could make God tremble), the periodic respite of relative calm that despite that word can’t help but be received as an ominous breeze, all presented in myriad textures that can at times appear as if meant to soundtrack their own geologic era.

Among the challenges appraising this work beyond its enormity is gauging the sheer sense of purpose that underlies. That Gira has grown increasingly impressionistic as he’s aged into his art is a given and more or less expected of an artist of his stature. It’s the impetus pushing behind the process that most intrigues. One imagines a thrumming glowering bulwark of a flesh machine in which beats the human heart of a colossus. Subsequently, when pondering the drive that animates these vast and captivating sheets of sound, one is forced to stretch the common parameters that define the musician-listener relationship. This is investiture, emotionally, aesthetically, glowingly. But the catch here is free will would seem to be absent. Once this record starts choice is gone. The phrase is ‘drawn inexorably’ and in it lies what might be the clearest clue to the intrinsic motives behind this music and its process.

For those aiming to create their own lasting voice, music’s ephemerality, unique among the arts, brings with it a deeper responsibility. Dealing with sound, to those truly committed, means constantly confronting an almost limitless array of paths to the yet-known, grabbing at reins attached to something wildly invisible. It means unraveling the infinite. To say the task is supremely difficult is to understate it while helping explain why nearly all artists, even the majority of those we consider our most talented, abandon the plumbing search and settle into a mortal groove, a comfort zone, just as everyone reading this surely would. That some stand for something grander, be they Beefhearts Coltranes Sun Ra’s or Julia Holters, can help lend this short venture across the earth a glimmer of meaning. Hence Swans.

When you want to get past the ragged flashing details, all the messy minutiae and instead attempt to encompass the hugeness of the universe itself, which almost certainly must be this band’s desire as no other explanation will suffice, it is by necessity that the approach and the writing behind it become elemental to its core. Whereas it could be said that this has always been Gira’s goal, at least implicitly, the point he and Swans have now reached on The Glowing Man exceeds the metrics offered by the word ‘intensity.’ Somewhere near the intersection of pure purpose and catalyzed, uninhibited zeal, they’ve fused with the force of (for want of a better term) rock’n’roll energy itself, managing in the process to render it both largely unrecognizable and utterly primal/ultimately faithful to the base prototype. Fanciful language aside, let’s simply say that it’s difficult to imagine this iteration of Swans covering “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” astonishing and rightly heralded as it is.

In the face of all this, specifics hardly matter but nonetheless they dazzle with their scope. Lean inside a vast terrain, “Cloud of Forgetting” gradually emerges from a softly trilling guitar quiet, the sonic expanse of what becomes a drama-soaked dry-heat panorama cohering in stages – the plangent strum of an acoustic, a twinkle of piano on the horizon that sounds like Nicky Hopkins lost in the desert, a rhythm section pounding out a slow-motion subterranean beat – before Gira’s vocals wade in, pleading to the gods as might a man slowly waking up to disaster, his once hospitable surroundings reduced to a wasteland. The mood as the sky descends is parched and desperate and yet that buzzing bright haze of electric guitar remains, a linger of promise in the waning light. As the singer in his gothic preacher baritone delivers his final word (“blind“) over the bass note collapse of the piano, at least two things are clear: Swans tracks as they’ve evolved over the years have indeed become primarily mood pieces, deeply harrowing and most often unflinchingly apocalyptic, their emotional resonance unparalleled, pain only rising as far as hope allows, the band’s work suggesting tirelessly a Revelations-like release even under the direst of circumstance; and Gira, producing, owes an eternal debt to engineer John Congleton at Sonic Ranch for helping mold the clay forged by the visionary’s heat into these intensely living dioramas. The results, well beyond all the tonal heaviosity, are profoundly, profoundly beautiful and the world, if it hasn’t sufficiently done so, should marvel at the fruits of their partnership. It’s pretty damned doubtful it will experience its like again.

Moving on, well, there’s hardly much point, is there? Do you really need to be told that next track “Cloud of Unknowing” is, at 25+ minutes, just the second-longest cut here (“The Glowing Man” reaches within a seer’s whisker of a full half-hour) but never loses an ounce of the tension that accrues in an extended frenzy of ruined religious fervor? Or how “The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black,” though gentling down the pitch to what might even be considered ‘Swansian idyllic,’ in fact deploys an hypnotic, droning trance motif (there’s even a buried horn-like effect that quotes Steve Reich) before evolving into a bruisingly funky, Durutti-esque second half all of which adds up to it being A) The Glowing Man‘s grooviest track and B) no less disturbing in effect (not to be unexpected with lyrics like “The weight of my body is too much to bear” and “An ocean of insects works like a sheet“)? Or that the title track – after a jarringly sparse-then-darkly cinematic “When Will I Return?,” a controversy-baiting, post-rape/revenge fantasy sung to chilling effect by Jennifer Gira – opens with an echo of (believe it) Led Zeppelin’s “In The Light,” takes on stray components as if saving them from drowning, bursts forth with an aboriginal primacy, pulls back on its nerves for a long second, erupts once more into crescendo, retreats again to sit and breathe and lick its wounds only to rise at last against the oppressive tides, passing with due deliberation through its roaring, marvelously deafening strata of movements to become a tour de force beyond all reckoning? No, you needn’t be told any of that, the truth was already there before you, unfathomably real in all the ways you’ve long been accustomed to with this band.

A conceptual work if only in the grandest intuitive sense, The Glowing Man consumes itself, exceeds its own boundaries, presents its magnitudes all bound together in a massed volume of the necessary. No matter what the future holds, for Gira, Swans, yourself, for anyone or anything, you’ve already bought this even if you haven’t. Life resides in it.

[The Glowing Man arrives June 17th and can be pre-ordered here]