Swans may just be one of the greatest bands of our time. They consistently deliver phenomenally weird and creative sounds, telling a story with music like none other.
With an opening line like that, you might already know my opinion on their new album, The Glowing Man; it’s brilliant. If you came into this review looking for a short summary as to whether you should buy this album, here it is: Yes, absolutely. It’s a two-and-a-half hour epic, and may be Swans’ greatest effort to date. It delivers on everything one would want out of a Swans album, from weird and wonderful music to dark and thought-provoking theming. In a year that’s seen the release of a new Radiohead LP, a new album from Kanye West and other heavyweight musical legends such as Mogwai, The Glowing Man is sitting pretty on top of my album of the year list as it stands.
First, a bit of history. Swans was the brainchild of singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira, who formed the band in 1982 with Jonathan Kane, Mojo, Thurston Moore, Sue Hanel and Daniel Galli-Duani. This roster didn’t last too long, however, with members rotating in and out of the band like a pinwheel. Gira remained the only constant member over the band’s lifespan. In 1997, Gira decided to dissolve the band, a decision that would later be reversed in 2010, reforming the band. This post-reformation Swans consisted of long-time Swans’ guitarist Norman Westberg, Christoph Hahn, Phil Puleo, Thor Harris, and of course, Gira.
Post-reformation Swans were extremely different to the band Gira once led. Previously famous for albums such as Filth and Children of God, as well as their brutal live shows (Gira often used to leave the stage to throw pogoing audience members to the floor), the new Swans were more hypnotic. With their long, sustained chords that left the audience in a pseudo-trancelike state, it seemed like the band had matured over their 13 year “hiatus.” The release of their first album post-reformation, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, in 2010 led to mixed reactions from previous fans, with many expressing their disappointment over the apparent mellowness of the record. The band followed it with The Seer (2012) and To Be Kind (2014), both of which topped Record of the Year lists across many music sites, with high 9’s and the occasional 10/10 being awarded to each.
Right, prologue over. Let’s get into the meat of this album (or tofu, for all you vegetarians out there). The Glowing Man, as I stated in my intro, is an incredible album. Musically, it’s exceptional, nothing out of the ordinary for Swans. The iconic instrumentation is here in full force, and this may be Swans’ most Swans-y album. Musically, it’s closer to To Be Kind than anything else, with just a hint of The Seer in there to make sure it doesn’t sound recycled or old-hat. In fact, the title track on the album (which is also the longest, clocking in at about 29 minutes) is immediately reminiscent of Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture, the centrepiece of To Be Kind. Hell, it even incorporates a section from Bring The Sun, albeit with added parts that the band said evolved from improvisations when they played the track live. That is pretty symbolic of the musical direction of the album as a whole; taking a familiar base and building something new and fresh off of it.
Thematically, though, is where the album truly shines. Swans have always been amazing at building albums that don’t just flow musically, but weave a consistent message or theme throughout the record. It’s what separates a great album from a magnificent one. Without a theme around which to link the tracks together, the whole thing falls apart. A good album should have a spine upon which the individual tracks are built around. And holy shit does The Glowing Man deliver on this front. Where The Seer was about repetition and insanity, and To Be Kind was about love and the dirty parts of it, The Glowing Man is, at its core, a record about dominance. About dominating, and also of being dominated.
Of course, this can open a can of worms that can be hard to talk about; namely, the recent rape allegations levelled against Gira by Larkin Grimm. If you’re aware of this story, it might spring to mind on When Will I Return, where Jennifer Gira, Michael’s wife, sings “His hands are on my throat/My key is in his eye.” Or during The Glowing Man (the track), where the frontman howls, “No no no no no no” over and over, punctuated by an occasional “yes.”
However, Jennifer Gira’s vocals were written by Michael specifically for her. It was, as Gira said in a press release, “a tribute to her strength, courage, and resilience in the face of a deeply scarring experience she once endured, and that she continues to overcome daily.” As for The Glowing Man (the track, again), no explanation has been offered yet. But the rest of the track seems to give reference to a “Joseph” figure. So ultimately, is this album about rape? No. Is it about dominance? Yes, just in the same way that To Be Kind was about love. Swans have never been a band too personal, to delve into specifics for an entire album. This album didn’t emerge out of Grimm’s comments, but rather from the deep seated fascination that Swans have had with the darker side of life, of which the idea and theme of dominance sits comfortably.
The album as a whole moves eloquently between the obvious and subtle theming, only hinting at the core issue. Both the opening tracks, Cloud Of Forgetting and Cloud Of Unknowing are described as hymns on Swans’ Bandcamp page. Thus, being dominated by a deity, of some kind. Frankie M is a little more obtuse, with a high mention of drugs sitting at the tail end of the song, so perhaps submission to addiction? That’s the beauty of Swans; no matter how much you dissect their music, there’s always going to that extra level of complexity to it that will leave you wondering.
Album closer Finally Peace offers a great deal of closure. As the name suggests, it’s an uplifting track, with the band breaking free from the overarching downtrodden feel. Gira repeats “The glory is mine,” which offers the sense that the band has broken free from something, although what that is is unclear, but that’s the point. It’s an extremely fitting end for what has been announced as Swans’ final album in its current iteration. I just hope we don’t have to wait so long for them to resurface.
Image: Bearded Gentlemen Music