The demise and rebirth of Swans is now widely documented, particularly in light of the unprecedented critical – and even commercial – success Michael Gira and his cohorts have achieved since their return in 2010 with My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. The snippety interludes which appeared between tracks on Love of Life began to expand during the later years of the first incarnation of Swans, culminating in Soundtracks for the Blind, a colossal double album that placed the entirety of the band’s 15-year career into a cement mixer by way of a sign-off. No-one, not least of all the band, could have predicted where they would be in 2016.
Each release has been mightier and more epic, and has felt like the ultimate last word. And so it is that The Glowing Man, in many ways, is: Gira has declared the album the last of the current iteration of the band. It may seem perverse, but for Swans – or more specifically, Gira – to purposefully call a halt and follow a different trajectory while at the very peak of form and power is admirable. But from the outset, Gira was clear that rebooting Swans was not a nostalgia trip, not about dwelling on the back-catalogue, but about looking forward, and developing.
This development has been very much organic and collaborative, Gira’s bare-bones ideas taking on lives of their own through rehearsals and live performances. And so, as anyone who heard Not Here, Not Now ahead of the release of To Be Kind will readily anticipate, the demo sketches and in-development live material which appeared on The Gate has undergone major transformations en route to the arrival of The Glowing Man. With a title reminiscent of one of JG Ballard’s early novels, it’s an appropriately apocalyptic and immense work, its ten tracks spanning a colossal 118 minutes.
The two opening tracks, ‘Cloud of Forgetting’ and ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ – companions and counterparts, and with a combined running time of almost 38 minutes – both appeared on The Gate, but in very different forms and states of development. The tracks are appropriately named. These are dense, amorphous masses of sound which change shape and form as they drift These are immense slow-burners, and largely favour texture and restraint over volume or attack, presenting some of the most ambient works yet released under the Swans banner (although there are perhaps comparisons to be drawn to The Body Lovers album). But this is Swans, and both tracks build some tempestuous sonic storms.
Gira had threatened more groove, and ‘The World Looks Red’ is built on a relentless, stabbing groove. Calling to mind the wooziness of ‘Like a Drug’ and the jarring strikes of ‘Money is Flesh,’ it’s uptempo and centres around a short looping motif that drills its way into the cranium to nausea-inducing effect.
‘People Like Us,’ the album’s shortest song, is also the most conventional sounding. Its downtempo backstreet blues has a languid swing to it, not to mention a certain cabaret theatricality. Likewise ‘Frankie M,’ which after long, meandering introduction strikes a groove underpinned by a square 4/4 kick drum and overlaid with some light – dare I even say poppy – backing vocals. Around the sixteen minute mark it kicks into a stratospheric surge, a long-building crescendo that Swans have established as a trademark. But The Glowing Man seems very much a project concerned with moving away from what’s become established, and with Jennifer Gira taking the lead vocal on ‘When Will I Return?’ there comes another change of tone.
The title track is the point to which the album’s previous hour and twenty minutes has been building. Spanning twenty-eight minutes and a number of movements which emerge from one another often quite unexpectedly. The experience borders on overwhelming.
The final track, ‘Finally, Peace,’ is remarkable for its lack of overt Swans-ness, with a summery, sunny folk-pop feel ‘The glory is mine’ sings the chorus, sounding more like The Mamas and the Papas than Swans, before Gira’s wordless drone fades out over a triumphant march.
As the fade leaves silence, so comes reflection: The Glowing Man is not a ‘final’ album, but the end of a phase. With every end, there is a new beginning, and if anything, The Glowing Man feels more like an album that hints at transitions more than finality.
The Glowing Man is released by Young God Records on June 17, 2016