Formed in 1982, in New York City, United States, by Michael Gira with a revolving cast of members, Swans originated from the city’s so-called No Wave, or better yet Noise Rock, scene. A genre that developed in the late ’70s during the aftermath of Punk Rock’s first wave, it was pioneered in the U.S. by guitar-oriented groups like Contortions (“Jaded”) and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks (“I Woke Up Dreaming”) and, in England, by minimalist Industrial-rooted and synthesizer-dominated bands such as Cabaret Voltaire (“Automotivation”) and Throbbing Gristle (“Dead on Arrival”). The genre was further developed and taken to different directions in the ensuing decades by the likes of Sonic Youth (“I Love Her All the Time”), Butthole Surfers (“Cherub”), Dinosaur Jr. (“Sludgefeast”), Big Black (“Kerosene”), The Jesus Lizard (“Panic in Cicero”), Pussy Galore (“Trash Can Oil Drum”), and Swans (“Power for Power”).
However, what sets Swans apart from these other Noise Rockers is the broader scope of its music, made possible by Gira’s openness in incorporating various styles and influences into his work. Whereas the others (despite sonic experimentation) have stayed in the beloved noisy spectrum, Swans bravely explored outer rims that included Gothic (“Mona Lisa, Mother Earth”), New Wave (“Where Does a Body End?”), Neofolk (“No Cure for the Lonely”), and Worldbeat (“Some Things We Do”) – a sense of eclecticism that the listener can understand and appreciate better by discovering the band’s fourteen-album discography, from 1983’s Filth to the newly released The Glowing Man.
Released on June 17, 2016, The Glowing Man opens with the primitive tribal call of “Cloud of Forgetting,” which builds up from a bed of synth drones to pulses and strums of Folk sensibilities with faint echoes of lingering piano flourishes. It serves as the introduction to the lengthier and more textured ritualistic vibe of the ensuing “Cloud of Unknowing,” whose male-female vocal interplay and clanging bells midway through the piece evoke rustic sketches of mythical matters and incite emotions of primal origin; but most of all, the subtle sonic chaos of the pounding percussion and grating guitars in the track’s middle section connect the album to Swans’ trademark Noise Rock beginnings. “The World Looks Red / The World Looks Black” springs forth from the eerie swell of plucks and reverberations; coupled with Gira’s chants and drawls, it becomes hypnotic till the last hum.
The album provides its first breather in the form of the slow primeval sludge of “People Like Us,” the shortest track on the album whose melodies may recall traces of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Strawberries Dress.” Swans indulges the listener once again in the beauty of the long form, with the initially trance-inducing “Frankie M.,” whose second and third section becomes a catchy Pop Rock and which concludes as a proper Noise Rock song. The relatively short, Psychedelic Folk “When Will I Return?” is another break from the album’s structural theme; it also inevitably stands out for its lead female vocals, courtesy of Gira’s wife, Jennifer.
And then there is the almost half-an-hour title track, the album’s highlight that consists of various parts; each of which elicits a different mood, rhythm, and instrumentation – from the string orchestration in the introduction to the pounding percussion and frenetic chants in the middle part to the unapologetic outburst of noisy guitars in the end. The Glowing Man finishes aptly with the relaxing feel and mild tempo of the seeming farewell song “Finally, Peace.”
Overall, The Glowing Man finds Gira with his current wedge of Swans traversing once again the meditative and paganistic realms of Gothic/Neoclassical music. It also continues Gira’s indulgence in Progressive Rock-associated long-form structures, which actually started in Swans’ 1996 album, Soundtracks for the Blind, with the fifteen-minute track “Helpless Child.” He further explored this in 2012’s The Seer, with its more than half-an-hour-long title track, and then in 2014’s ensuing To Be Kind, with another extended epic, “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture.”
The ambitious and lush The Glowing Man, like its recent predecessors, will settle naturally and fittingly among the works of equally stylistic, fearless, and sonically experimental Modern Classical groups and artists operating in the same spectrum such as Dead Can Dance (Toward the Within) and Nicholas Lens (The Accacha Chronicles). But at the end of the spin, Swans’ sense of adventure remains distinct because of the guitar-noise foundation that has become its leader’s badge of honor. CrypticRock gives The Glowing Man 4 out of 5 stars.