Review Summary: Swans' latest album is a diverse offering of blues, post-rock and drone minimalism that finds the group using their never-failing formula of channeling past sounds into something more elaborate and more complex
62 years into frontman/main-brain Michael Gira's life and more than 35 years since the group emerged out of the noise-filled underground of New York's no-wave scene, Swans are still baffling the music world with their ability to push musical boundaries and regularly churn out relentlessly ambitious projects that each seem more challenging than the last one. That they do it is astounding, but how they do it is rather simple; in their old age, Swans have become less of a 'band' and more of a shifting, amorphous compendium of everything they've done in the past. They don't have to reinvent; given the depth and diversity of their catalogue, Swans are free to pull bits and pieces of pre-made material and twist it and experiment with it so much that the end product isn't really 'songs' at all--more like spontaneous, indefinitely long-fragments of music that become stored potential for other spontaneous, indefinitely-long fragments of music.
Much of the music on their latest LP, The Glowing Man--professedly the last album from Swans to feature their current lineup--reaffirms this quality. As on previous albums, many of the tracks here have been hanging around in various forms in their live shows, and almost ten minutes of the title track feature an alternate rendition of To Be Kind's "Bring the Sun."
Even more so than their other recent LPs, however, The Glowing Man finds Gira and crew drawing inspiration from various, identifiable stages of the band's past. "People Like Us" is a bluesy, mournful, dirge-like anthem eerily reminiscent of Swans' darkest moments from their early 90s Gothic period. "Finally, Peace" is a folksy, hymn-like canticle with a punchy piano melody that sounds like it could have been an alternate ending for The Seer's "A Piece of the Sky." "Cloud of Forgetting" and "Cloud of Unknowing," meanwhile, showcase Swans' trademark post-rock proclivities with building, shape-shifting crescendos of noise offset by layered female vocals and Gira's long, protracted, mantra-like drawls--drawls which seem to function more as instrumentals than vocals at times. While their last studio LP, To Be Kind, felt as if it was built around one cohesive whole, with each track reverting back to one centralized sound or idea, The Glowing Man finds Swans aiming less for overarching unity and more for straight-up diversity.
If any song on the album owes the least to Swans' past, however, it's the pulverizing 14-minute "The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black." Swans have always showed inclinations to groove, but here, they're at their grooviest to date. The track opens with a quiet piano and one-note bass-line and eventually hurdles full-throttle into an absolute tribal roller-coaster of Thor Harris's whip-like, kickback drums and Gira's irresistibly catchy and ambiguous chant of "Hello, sleeper man/hello, maker man/hello, keeper man/ hello, leaver man," as synthesizers weave in and out of earshot and the piano pounds and crashes to the rhythm. It's a song that reiterates Swans' ability to be sinister in the most cartoonish fashion and yet--at the same time--to be actually, terrifyingly hypnotic. If it isn't the best song on the album, it's at least the most original, showcasing the group's unceasing ability to plow into uncharted territory late in their career.
Sometimes, however, it's easy to wish Swans explored more uncharted territory throughout this album. Many of the songs here would have appeared groundbreaking and experimental five years ago, but unfortunately, after such colossal post-rock efforts as The Seer and To Be Kind, tracks like "Cloud of Forgetting" and "Cloud of Unknowing" sound like they follow a slightly exhausted formula. It's not that they sound like they could have been pulled from the previous two albums, as both songs clearly aim for a unique aesthetic. But all the heavy crescendos and layering of more and more instrumentals as songs go on has become so trademark as to be almost hackneyed at times, so that no matter what new sounds are throw in, it becomes somewhat predictable which overall direction the music will take. These songs reaffirm what Swans can do, but they don't push their music into unsettling places in quite the manner The Seer or To Be Kind did.
Even though it lapses into methods already used at times, though, The Glowing Man still finds Swans as nuanced, dynamic and ferocious as they've ever been. As Swans evolve and adapt new sounds, each new album seems to become but a further elaboration of the band's past experimentation--so much so that even when the band does revert to old methods, they're able to stretch them to greater heights or utilize them in new ways so that the sound always remains fresh. As, in Michael Gira's words, the last album from the current iteration of Swans, The Glowing Man is a fitting closer for the breathtaking run Swans have had since 2010. It taps into previous stages of their musical journey arguably more than any other Swans album, yet still avoids being a 'rootsy' record because of Swans undying ability to twist, contort and refurbish pre-made material into something new and adventurous.