It is safe to say that this is the best, most ambitious formation of the band ever assembled.
As the current iteration of Swans, Michael Gira’s mighty, terrifying unit of unclassifiable noise, reaches its conclusion, it is safe to say that it is the best, most ambitious formation of the band ever assembled. Originally an outlet for its frontman’s youthful rage and punctuated by deliberately repulsive lyrics that luxuriated in toxic nihilism, the Swans that is releasing The Glowing Man represents something more reflective of its namesake’s beauty. If 2014’s To Be Kind found the group wrangling its epic industrial squall into a monstrous parallel of Indian classical music, all spiritual release, their final album for the time being builds to a calmer benediction.
As with all of the band’s post-reformation albums, The Glowing Man was honed on the road, morphing out of improvised departures from prior songs and gradually sculpted into a clearer shape. Anyone who saw the band live on their recent tour or got their hands on the crowd-funded live album The Gate will have heard tracks like “Cloud of Forgetting” and “Frankie M” in gestational form. The most curious element of Swans, a band that thrives at maximum volumes and in a setting large enough to contain that sound, is that the studio albums represent the refinement and culmination of the live work, instead of the other way around. Live, “Frankie M” opened shows with a gradual build of percussion into a maelstrom of feedback that swallowed whole Gira’s more somber vocals and his weary addiction lyrics. Situated halfway into this record, however, that build-up is more focused, less about assault than escape. Like an old Fela Kuti song, its first half musically tells the story that its lyric-driven second half expounds upon. There is nuance here, a push-pull of tension and release reflective of its subject where once it was simply the howl of the doomed.
Swans’ recent work could be tagged as “post-rock,” what with its freewheeling abandonment of traditional structures and rock orchestration and its use of textures and moods over riffs and melody. This may be the album that best fits that genre, but even it shows an approach to composition that sharply departs from post-rock standouts. Though the band may structure its tracks around swelling catharsis, they lack the semi-classical pretensions that mark, say, Explosions in the Sky. Instead, Gira and co. draw from the legacy of free jazz, relying less on calculated moments than direct emotional communication. Christoph Han’s lap-steel guitar can be delicate, as it is in the first section of opener “Cloud of Forgetting,” but it also fills out and amplifies the colossal roars when the band unleashes. Thor Harris’ percussion layers in sinister bells and vibes to Phil Puleo’s crashing drums. When the band gives in to white noise, it feels ripped straight from Gira’s soul.
Even so, this is altogether a gentler Swans than existed even on the occasionally blissful To Be Kind. “Cloud of Unknowing” begins with tense violin scrapings over metallic percussion sweeps, but the guitars that eventually roll into frame with behemoth growls are, odd as it is to say, calming. When the track lurches into lumbering bass walks filled out with Mellotron washes and Gira’s baritone chants, it’s hard not to sway along with arms outstretched even with the album on headphones. “People Like Us” could have come from an Angels of Light session, with its dark country vibes joined by a hint of lap-steel for added dimension, not to mention the splashes of nylon-string guitar to turn the whole thing into a romantic gondola ride through the river of Hades. It’s not happy by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s something laid back about Gira’s naturally dark tendencies.
Best embodying this split between the macabre and the serene, though, is the album’s most troublesome track. “When Will I Return?” is a showcase for Gira’s wife Jennifer, and is a recounting of her ordeal with sexual assault. In a vacuum, the song is a valuable revision of Gira’s past invocation of rape as a shock tactic, and lyrics like “My life is mine to keep/ I still kill him in my sleep” have a direct simplicity to them that trades lofty poetics for blunt confrontation. Its climactic chant, in which Jennifer and the rest of the band repeats “I’m alive” as if to keep confirming the fact, is one of the most powerful moments in their discography. What complicates it are the recent allegations of Gira’s own sexual assault by former Young God artist Larkin Grimm. However long ago Gira composed the track and planned its release, there’s no way that this track doesn’t feel defensive on his part, and it undermines the power of his wife’s exorcism.
That outside context makes a direct song feel deflective, and that contradiction could describe much of The Glowing Man. The title track is one of the band’s most variable compositions, first swirling amid haunting textures before erupting into pure noise, only to settle into the closest the band has ever come to a traditional rock groove, albeit one that sounds like you’re standing too close to Motorhead’s speakers. It encapsulates the entire record in how perfectly it captures the feeling of being in the eye of a hurricane, withstanding the howling wind and chaos only to emerge in brief moments of terrible calm. Gira has long used feedback and repeated chords to break down the listener, but here the soaring squalls encourage relief instead of conflict. When the album, and this version of the band, reaches the end with “Finally Peace,” it truly does seem that the volatile frontman has found just that.