Swans bandleader Michael Gira described his band’s namesake as “majestic, beautiful-looking creatures…with really ugly temperaments” in a 2013 interview. Obviously this pertains to the music Swans creates as well, even if the most infamous period of their existence focused almost solely on the “really ugly temperaments” part of the equation. Since the band’s 2010 resurgence after a 13-year absence, there has been more of a balance between majesty and abrasion in albums like My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky and To Be Kind. But make no mistake: This is music designed to overwhelm and pulverize you on multiple levels, even if it’s no longer solely focused on shattering your eardrums to shit and filling your mind with profane images of violence, torture and perversion both macro and micro. The band’s latest offering, The Glowing Man, does not deviate from the Swans blueprint of overwhelming listeners.
Cinematic is an oft-used adjective to describe music of great scope. I don’t need to search through reviews of past Swans records to be fairly certain that it’s been invoked regarding the band. You can easily imagine tracks on The Glowing Man like “Cloud of Unknowing” being used to score some apocalyptic film—personally, I’ve been listening to it while rereading Justin Cronin’s Passage Trilogy novels about a plague that turns much of North America’s population into monstrous vampires, and it’s quite fitting. But doing so almost misses the point, as the album creates its own accompanying film in the listener’s head, featuring vignettes of war, sexual violence, drug abuse, storms literal and metaphorical overtaking vast swaths of the earth. (In one moment on “Unknowing,” Gira chants “Kali” over and over again, as if beseeching the Hindu deity to lambast our world with her destructive might. Elsewhere in the song he mentions Jesus and other religious figures—he calls the song a “prayer” in the press notes for The Glowing Man but doesn’t clarify to whom it’s addressed or its ultimate intent.)
Although there are massive climaxes of noise on the album where guitars by Gira, Norman Westberg and Kristof Hahn unleash torrents of riffs and drummers Phil Puleo and industrial-scene vet Bill Rieflin pound out hellish fills, The Glowing Man spends much of its time building feelings of menace and despair through chord progressions and arpeggiations that are gradually repetitive but never boring. There are moments of incredible beauty throughout these periods, such as the spiraling high-keys piano on opener “Cloud of Forgetting” or the chiming guitars that serve as foundation to ‘The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black.”
Certain songs on The Glowing Man seem almost traditional. “People Like Us,” the album’s shortest song, is practically an acoustic ballad, albeit one with ominous bells, harsh strings and unstructured guitar in the background, and brutally repetitive drums at the end. Gira’s melodic vocal and lyrics are some of the most straightforward moments on The Glowing Man. He seems to be composing some elegy for the human race: “We’re drifting goodbye, on a rust-colored cloud/Oh fallopian friends, abandon us now.”
Lyrics on Swans records were often another weapon in the band’s arsenal during its first incarnation (e.g. “Cop,” “Raping a Slave” and “A Hanging”) and are now more of a backing element than anything else—an essential piece in the overall sonic puzzle but certainly not an aspect for which the music is the delivery system. It’s intriguing, then, to hear lyrics and vocals front and center on “When Will I Return,” ostensibly The Glowing Man’s lead single and the album’s other most “traditional” song. Both belong to Jennifer Gira, Michael’s wife, who relates the horror of her sexual assault in terms both childishly simplistic and appropriately disturbing: “I’m splayed here on some curb/Shards of glass say ‘starry night’/When will this pig-man stop?/His stink is like a dog.” This eventually becomes a cathartic narrative of revenge but that does not diminish the horror of the experience. Only slow, intermittent acoustic strum accompanies her voice until halfway through—then, the band joins in thunderously behind her as she sings, “Oh I’m alive.”
(In relation to “When Will I Return,” it’d be irresponsible not to mention singer-songwriter Larkin Grimm’s accusation of sexual assault by Gira: The latter doesn’t deny the incident but claims it was consensual, and regrets it as an act of infidelity to his wife. Grimm, whom Gira released from her contract with Young God more than a year after the assault is alleged to have taken place,* has not pressed charges or brought a civil action against Gira but maintains that it was rape. Him creating a musical framework for his wife to bravely purge her own rape trauma—which was written and recorded before the accusations took place—does create some conflicts and questions in light of this. If it disinclines you to listen to Swans, I don’t blame you in the slightest. Even if innocent of rape, he is at minimum another in the long chain of unpleasant men who’ve created great art.)
The aforementioned sense that every note and word on this record is building toward something truly colossal is fulfilled in the record’s title track. “The Glowing Man” is nothing short of a storm, every musician in lockstep as if creating one giant note that bears all the force of a Category 5 hurricane. While there are some moments of calm, nearly all of the song’s 29 minutes are explosive. Around the 15-minute mark, it picks up speed and becomes the closest in structure to a traditional hard rock song as anything in the Swans catalog (except maybe “A Little God In My Hands” from To Be Kind), with charging guitars that wouldn’t be out of place on the newest Deftones record. This being Swans, it never concedes to deliver a hook or even an unconventional chorus. It is all climax and chaos, devolving to an anarchy of guitar riffs turned to feedback, cymbal crashes, atonal piano and wordless chanting in the final four minutes. Some will consider it unlistenable while others find it enthralling, but regardless, “The Glowing Man” is such a wallop that the quiet, melodic benediction of closing track “Finally, Peace” doesn’t alleviate the sting of the blow.
“The words are all gone, there’s more to be said.” So goes a lyric on “People Like Us,” one that sums up how draining and at times excruciating this album—supposedly the last by the current band lineup of Swans—feels. Listeners may wonder exactly what they’ve experienced and what it adds up to, and if they enjoy or even simply appreciate it, may feel conflicted in those feelings due to Gira’s controversy. (I know I do.) What cannot be disputed is that The Glowing Man is one of the year’s most challenging records, filled with beauty, terror and considerable compositional and rhythmic complexity. While not the best of the comeback-era Swans albums (that’d be To Be Kind, which is a fucking Extinction Level Event compared to The Glowing Man’s hurricane and also the band’s most listenable work), it will take you to places that the rest of 2016’s music, even much of its best, simply cannot, and some of those places are worth visiting. It is representative, in many ways, (the music writer wrote bitterly), of the frightening, all too frequently appalling times in which we live.
(* Language used here is for legal reasons, not to diminish what Grimm says she went through.)