A Review of Swans’ “The Glowing Man”
For some reason, despite my music geekery, I’ve never gotten into the band Swans — until now. That’s despite the fact that the band’s albums are generally warmly reviewed in places such as Pitchfork.com — places where the publication might not be completely glowing in effusive praise of a particular album, but never dropping the review score below an 8, either. Based on that observation, I guess I could say that — in the eyes of the critics — Swans comes across as a remarkably consistent band, one that has a fairly high bar when it comes to quality assurance. So why have I never bought a Swans album, when relatively countless others are? (After all, the outfit’s last album, To Be Kind, debuted at No. 36 on the Billboard albums chart.) I suppose there’s a fear factor involved. I’m not sure after hearing the band’s new album, The Glowing Man, what it was that I was expecting from a Swans album, but I’m pretty sure that — based on all of the visceral descriptors of the band’s music in the press — I was expecting a dark and depressing time, something that was conjured up in the deepest, blackest pit imaginable. (Strange that that would put me off, as I’ve started listening to some metal in recent years.) Well, I suppose I wasn’t too far off the mark — Swans comes across to me on The Glowing Man as a kind of Nick Cave-inspired outfit, if Cave was interested in scoring the music to The Exorcist in full prog-rock mode. However, Swans is not as scary or unapproachable as I thought they were.
That said, there is one thing you can remark about this album in particular and that is that the band knows how to ride a riff into oblivion. Since The Glowing Man is getting a vinyl release, it would be naturally a triple-LP: the thing runs just under two hours in length from start to finish. (Thus, if you’re planning on buying this release, start thinking of a good reason right about now as to how you can get time off work, or what excuse would be good for playing hooky from school.) I’m not sure how this record will translate to vinyl with some of its songs stretched across various sides, as at least one song is almost 30 minutes long (the title track) and two others surpass the 20-minute mark. (Shades of “The Ikon”, anyone?) There are a lot of twists and turns to get lost in. However, for the most part, the album feels longer than those songs, as the songs themselves mutate, and sometimes run into the next piece without so much as a pause for breath. The material, then, is distinctly proggy, and if there’s anything that Swans is able to show us on this release, it is how prog rock would have mutated for the 21st century. It’s fascinating to listen to — I love longer albums that stretch out and unfurl at their own gradual pace, even though many of those records could be easily trimmed down to a single LP, and The Glowing Man is no exception to that rule.
More after this photo of Michael Gira:
Where Swans really do earn their marks for being “scary” is not so much in the music — though there’s an aggressive and yet haunting quality to much of it — but in the lyrics. Head singer-songwriter Michael Gira tends to take single words or a phrase and repeat them in a singular mantra that is full of dread and poison, if not outright absurdity at times. The best effect where this is used is on “Frankie M”, seemingly about a person, real or imagined, who has died from a drug overdose, where Gira simply repeats the names of some very well-know chemical substances to a dazzling, hypnotic effect. It’s the sole moment on the record (or three records) where you might feel compelled to chant along in singsongy style. However, there are also swaths of the record that rely less on words than a maelstrom of sound to convey an ugly, brutal, punk-inflected world. It is at some of these points, with the staggering riffs being repeated, that you can easily see how the group gets lumped into the indie rock pantheon, if not the punk one. Essentially, Swans take a very pop music idiom (the idea of repeatedness to create a hook) and turn it on its head, effectively creating art rock in the process. Indeed, much of The Glowing Man feels as though it is an art installation — a slightly garish one — that would be best suited to being “hung” in some out of the way, underground gallery that delights in the subversive.
But, for all of its strengths, which makes The Glowing Man a great introduction to the group’s music — even though this is said to be this incarnation of Swans’ final album — its length or overlength is also something of a liability. There seems to be a lack of focus to the proceedings, as though Gira and company are just busy pushing things to their natural limits just to test listeners’ patience at times. Easily, some of this material could have been pruned down to a more manageable clock tick — I don’t know of a precedent where having more than two 20-minute songs on a record has been more of a blessing than a curse, though, come to think of, Swans is an group that seems somewhat buoyant when it comes to things that are cursed. As well, the group does go out with more of a whimper than a bang: final cut “Finally Peace” seems more of a Mamas and the Papas outtake, and I tend to rank the Mamas and the Papas fairly lowly on things anything could be influenced by. (I think that if I hear the song “Monday Monday” — let alone “California Dreamin’” — just once more in my entire life, my brain will explode from the overexposure in the case of the latter and simply having to hear a dreck song in the case of the former.) Still, The Glowing Man is an interesting composition from wall to wall. An album of this length needs time and patience, and perhaps a touch of understanding, to really make heads or tails of it, but for a maze — complete with dead ends — you can get lost in, this is a pretty intriguing record. Making a two-hour album, and having it come across as completely mesmerizing in its best moments, and there are plenty of them, is a real accomplishment. And I’ll bet that there is someone out there who will look at that running time and then crap their pants at its portending nature. In the end, that might just make Swans a scary outfit after all.
Rating: 7 / 10
Swans’ The Glowing Man will be released on June 17, 2016, via Mute Records.
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Zachary Houle is a resident of Ottawa, Canada. He has been the recipient of a $4,000 arts grant from the City of Ottawa for emerging artists and has been a Pushcart Prize nominee. He also has been a music critic, with music writing publishing credits in SPIN magazine and the Ottawa Citizen, among others. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.