Post-rock. The word screams of hipster and Pitchfork.com and purposefully obtuse weirdness. But what actually is it? Take a listen to a number of bands labelled as such and you’ll find a host of common elements, but still, it seems like a broad classification that doesn’t necessarily have a base sound. But in this piece I wanna take a look at a certain corner of this strange post-rock landscape. Listen to Sigur Ros and you’ll get a serene, heavenly sound built around big, atmospheric crescendos. Conversely, listen to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and you’ll find nightmarish soundscapes and non-lyrical political activism, again, built around big crescendos. And that’s the key word here. Crescendo. Both of these bands use similar musical conventions but both have drastically different effects on the listener, but in both cases it’s all about the swell.
That’s where Swans come into the picture. Swans are a band I sort of became obsessed with for awhile after the release of their 2014 album To Be Kind, a record I listened to almost on repeat for several months. They incorporated the elements I described above to a viscerally thrilling effect. They, however, didn’t originate in this musical space. The earlier incarnation of Swans was a brutal, noisy ensemble that on albums such as Filth and Cop relied on hypnotically repetitive slabs of squalling guitar noise and metallic percussion to get their points across. But throughout the eighties and nineties, they grew into a subtler sound, absorbing sounds from folk, metal, and industrial music to compliment the mad preacher vocal stylings of band guru Michael Gira. This all culminates with 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind, often considered to be a cornerstone of the ambient rock that would be spawned in its wake. This would also be their last album until 2010.
With The Glowing Man, purportedly the last project with the current line-up of the band, Gira and company stretch their tension and release songwriting format to it’s logical extreme. This is a long piece of work. At 118 minutes, it clocks in at just under two hours. That said, there are only eight tracks on this album. That should tell you a bit about whether or not you think you’d enjoy this record. Five songs reach over ten minutes, with three of them getting well beyond twenty, culminating in the monstrous title track at TWENTY EIGHT MINUTES. Funny thing is that’s still six minutes shorter than the longest track from their previous album. For a band originally affiliated with the New York punk scene, these guys are not interested in brevity.
What does the band do with these huge slabs of music, you may ask? Whereas Sigur and Godspeed used their sound for more subtle atmospheric effect, Swans opt for a decidedly violent approach, often using drawn out musical build up to set up an unexpected punch to the gut. Unlike the former two bands, Swans aren’t afraid to rip out a huge riff and rock out for controlled bursts amidst all the hazy atmosphere these compositions swim around in. Perhaps that’s what drew me to them more than other bands in this sub-genre. The result is that the payoffs on these tracks are massive. The title track in particular spends its first fifteen minutes ebbing and flowing smoothly, a series of small peaks and valleys if you will. After an intensely repetitious two chord onslaught about halfway through, we get a several minute movement in which the music winds down to a morass of floating synths and e-bowed guitar ambience, getting quieter and quieter with short flares of percussion and loud guitars until the stillness reaches a nadir, at which point a punky Motorik-style break brutally cuts through the fog and the track is off to the races once again. I go on and on about dynamics when I talk about music, and Swans are undoubtedly masters of it, being able to slowly break a instrumental down to its base elements before building back up to an absolutely terrifying racket.
In addition to these kaiju sized pieces, the album sports three shorter songs in the five to six minute range. Despite the focus that a twenty plus minute track will inherently draw to itself, these shorter songs offer resolution to the massive epics around them. They almost seem to function as prologues and epilogues to their big brother tracks. Sonically, these bits have a sort of industrial Americana feel and are primarily acoustic guitar based, no doubt residual influence from Michael Gira’s neo-folk project Angels of Light, especially the swampy “People Like Us”, a bayou dirge of slithery leads and Gira’s deep Johnny Cash inflected croon. The track lends an air of uncertainty to the end of the first disc, a feeling that is wholly rounded out by the drugged out nightmare that is “Frankie M”, the second disc opener. Another of these bookending shorter tracks is the bittersweet “Finally, Peace”, a melancholy march into the sunset after the bipolar thrashing of the title track. It’s a good way to end the record, and if the rumors of the band’s impending break up are true, a good way to send off for this incarnation of the band.
However, one of these shorter tracks carries a weight that even rivals that of the long form songs surrounding it. That track is “When Will I Return”, a disturbing ballad sung by Gira’s wife, Jennifer. The lyrics tell of a sexual assault experienced by Jennifer at the hands of an (at this point) unnamed assailant. The track’s subdued nature juxtaposed with the grisly actions being described hit harder than even the heaviest moments on the album. The final minutes of ominous chanting and hypnotic repetition of the line “I’m alive” under a militaristic snare pattern are absolutely chilling. This feels like the album’s centerpiece despite it’s shorter length.
If I had to highlight a problem with the record, it’s that, for all of it’s sonic adventurism, the best material is definitely lumped on the second disc. The first two songs especially don’t really do much to justify their obscene runtimes. Album opener “Cloud of Forgetting” and its followup “Cloud of Unknowing” don’t really build to much, making their fifteen plus minute lengths a bit of a chore at times. And it wouldn’t be unfair to say that this album can feel sort of anticlimactic when compared to the visceral brutality of their two previous records. There aren’t any tracks that bludgeon the listener quite like the psychotic distorted horn section in “Oxygen” off of To Be Kind or the blinding white noise assault of “93 Ave. Blues” off of The Seer. The closest we really get is the aforementioned Motorik riff in the title track of this record. The feel here is a bit more meditative, with Gira choosing to sing more of the vocal lines in a subdued, folky way as opposed to the deranged chanting that he utilized more on To Be Kind. I sort of miss that style but this works very well too.
And that’s where I may be a bit unfair in reviewing this. To Be Kind was such an eye opening record for me that really got me to think about music and songwriting in a way I hadn’t really before, so the followup was definitely going to have an uphill battle to impress me. And while the record is impressive (seriously, it’s a great record by just about any standard), I can’t help but feel a little sad that this is supposed to be the last hurrah for Swans (at least for the time being). Either way, give it a listen. I don’t expect everyone to connect with the musical lexicon this band engages in, but if give this the time it needs to sink in, it will leave an impact.
-When Will I Return?
-The Glowing Man
Released on June 17, 2016 by Young God