Born from the New York no wave scene of the early ’80s, Swans built up a reputation for being one of the noisiest, most intense bands in America. Churning out slow, pummeling avant garde juggernauts, the band had become the source of urban legend, having supposedly caused physical illness in concertgoers due to the visceral, destructive sound they emitted. Yet around 1987, with their landmark Children of God album, Swans transitioned into a more poetic, subtle and quite beautiful sound, albeit one that maintained much of the power and intensity of their earlier work. And by the time they closed the book on their 15-year career, Swans had become a more abstract, almost post-rock band, as they magnificently displayed on, um, swan song Soundtracks for the Blind.
After having retired the Swans name for well over a decade and creating an impressive body of work with Angels of Light, however, head Swan Michael Gira decided to once again take on the mantle of his old band. For My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, Gira recruited several former bandmates, from guitarists Norman Westberg and Christoph Hahn to drummers Phil Puleo and Shearwater’s Thor Harris, as well as guests ranging from Ministry alum Bill Rieflin, Mercury Rev’s Grasshopper, Devendra Banhart and Gira’s own daughter. Yet after 14 years, Gira is in a vastly different creative place than he was when Swans first disbanded. The droning abstraction of Soundtracks for the Blind remains in part, but on the whole, Father is a much more accessible, melody-driven affair, still quite dark and haunting, but surprisingly immediate.
From the opening bell chimes of epic nine-minute opener “No Words/No Thoughts,” a chill sets in, casting an ominous shadow that sets a dark yet awe-inspiring tone for the rest of the album to follow. In less than a minute’s time, Gira & Co. introduce a harsh post-punk sludge, banging out a droning, plodding rhythm that’s characteristically abrasive, unsettling and alluring. And yet, halfway through, this doomsday rumble of a dirge kicks up the dust, turning into an art-rock epic of the highest order, with Gira playing an oddly calm master of ceremonies to the whirlwind of noisy riffs and screeching strings.
That opening monolith is an overwhelming experience on its own, challenging the listener while drawing him closer with each movement. Yet this exhilarating and eerie standout is followed up by seven more outstanding songs, each one revealing a different, intriguing side to this new permutation of Swans. “Reeling the Liars In” is a gospel-tinged folk song, Gira intoning the song’s title with a bluesy soulfulness. On “My Birth,” the band’s burly, hard rocking side comes out with ferocity, all Sabbath-style riffs and harmonica. The hypnotic “Eden Prison” locks into a bassy repetition, constantly threatening to explode into unbridled sonic violence, but never allows it to happen. The jaw-dropping, dynamic “Jim,” however, breaks loose gradually, reaching a tensely powerful moment as Gira chants, “It’s time, it’s time/ It’s time to begin.” And the fantastically titled “You Fucking People Make Me Sick” is a blissfully bizarre ballad in which Banhart and Gira’s daughter sing “I love you/ young flower/ now give me/ what is mine,” as a lead-in to a series of jarring percussive noises.
A heavy, sometimes terrifying and frequently beautiful offering, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky is a breathtaking new chapter for Michael Gira and Swans. It’s at once an album that encapsulates all of the Swans’ most potent qualities, yet sounds like nothing they’ve done before. Yet it is clearly the product of Michael Gira’s dark genius, from its pummeling industrial sounds to its aggressive rock ‘n’ roll and bluesy folk. Before releasing the album, Gira stated that he wasn’t interested in nostalgia, and the evidence is in Father‘s songs. This isn’t a throwback, but a brave and rewarding new direction.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.