Review Summary: The glorious, sentient, unbalanced soundtrack to the real end of days.
With Going Places
, their final album, Yellow Swans present a curious conundrum. The Portland duo are ostensibly a noise band, but the word "noise" implies aggression, which this album notably lacks. You could venture that they create ambient music, but this stuff is too immediate and arresting to simply be part of the surrounding atmosphere. One could argue that the way these songs build to enormous climaxes is similar to the post-rock tradition, but the traditional harmonic structures that define that genre are conspicuously absent here. So what do
we call this? How to adequately describe this music that reminds us of everything
by sounding like nothing else? At this point, it's virtually impossible; throughout their career, Yellow Swans have consistently explored the inherent paradoxes of noise as music and music as art, and Going Places
is no exception.
And that album title...what does it really mean? It's obviously a cheeky rejection of the usual sentimental farewell, but when you go beyond that, there's a feeling of unease. What places are Yellow Swans going to, exactly? The six tracks on this album remind me of abandoned spaces, of total emptiness. I've already picked out Fuck Buttons' Tarot Sport
as my soundtrack to the impending apocalypse, but whereas that album would ideally accompany an epic exit of humanity, Going Places
is probably a more accurate portrayal of how everything will end. This is the "New Life" that we will be pursuing in the future, isn't it? It's uncomfortable, the way these songs so perfectly evoke desolation without destruction, the marked lack of catharsis. "Opt Out" and "Limited Space" have huge crescendoes, yet their peaks feel doubtful - cautious, even. There's no release, no Petrarchan sestet answering the octave, no conveniently tidy conclusion.
The key to this effect lies in the way Yellow Swans craft such cavernous sonic spaces from small gestures. In the aforementioned "Opt Out", an acoustic guitar is layered upon itself again and again, slowly becoming more distorted and building up to a howling climax; think the bowed guitar of Sigur Rós's "Flugufrelsarinn" amplified tenfold and you'd be on the right track. But the sound's inherent intimacy acts against the track's large-scale growth, creating a palpable tension that is ultimately left unresolved. It's the opposite of Monet, muddled noise from a distance, distinguishable and intangible beauty up close. That question posed by the best Expressionist art - what really sets beauty apart from ugliness? - is asked here. Think about it: if somebody finds Going Places
aesthetically unpleasant, how can they be objectively proven wrong? The answer, of course, is that they can't and shouldn't be; this album's rough textures are just as essential to its success as its more melodious tendencies.
The Cageian philosophy of ambient noise being musically valid has been fundamentally misunderstood by generations of musicians, scholars, and listeners; what distinguishes Pollock's "One" from random paint splattering or 4'33"
from traffic noise isn't the end result so much as it is the intent, the purpose
. Going Places
isn't nearly as intentionally accidental as those notorious works, but who's to say that Pete Swanson and Gabriel Saloman didn't discover that the squeaking door that opens the album's haunting title track sounded eerily melodic by chance? Or that the gorgeous heaving sighs of "Sovereign" and album opener "Foiled" wasn't borne out of reckless experimentation? In the same way that William Basinski allowed the natural process of decomposition to become an instrument itself in The Disintegration Loops
, Yellow Swans allow their music to be, in a strange and inexplicable way, sentient. Which is why Going Places
outshines the glow cast upon it by its creators' long-gestating split; in its glorious and uneasy beauty, it simply exists