Review Summary: Natural Beauty
When listening to an album for the first time, I often like to experience it in nature. A few miles from my house, buried in the depths of an evergreen forest, is an abandoned rock quarry. There's a large pond surrounded by dead grass, and eerie-looking hills of red clay are interspersed in the desolate landscape. From a large mountain standing in the middle, you can see the distant confines of the state prison. When I heard that Swans was coming out with a new full-length, I knew this would be the place to experience it.
The day I got my hands on the album, I made my way to the rock quarry. The sun was setting as I pushed play. The relatively light and accessible Screen Shot greeted me and showed the band's surprising ability to channel the light ambience of Soundtrack for the Blind, yet reinforce their sound with the punk and noise rhythms that dominated earlier releases. Michael Gira's poetic croons dominated as the song built to an eerie climax that balanced the band's traditional cacophony with their newly rediscovered liveliness.
As I made my way up the mountain, I continued to listen to the unique sound that I've come to love Swans for, and the continuation of one aspect that's dominated their career: discretion. Instead of their complex rhythms and chord "personifications" simply basking in their own self worth, (which they could easily have done) Swans uses texture to feign simplicity in the hopes of drawing out each listener's deepest hidden emotions. There is no greater example of this than the track A Little God In My Hands; the simple drum and bass groove lures the listener in while dissonance slowly builds, not as an end unto itself, but rather to conjure a sense of panic and passion.
As time went on, the album and the sky both grew less friendly and more foreboding. Gone were the light and slightly inhibited tracks that greeted me at the beginning; now behemoths Bring The Sun Toussaint L'Ouverture and She Loves Us drew me in and overwhelmed me with anger and defiance. Michael Gira showed his incredible versatility, screaming one second while whispering the next. And he wasn't the only versatile one; each instrument expertly showed the darkness of Swan's recent work while channeling the fast abrasiveness of releases from twenty years ago.
The sky was black. Dissonant guitars soared. The forest was no longer visible; only an endless sea of darkness remained. With the majority of the album behind me, I began to reflect. It's quite evident that Michael Gira's vocals are a much more apparent force than in previous efforts. He croons, screams, or chants in every song on this release. And the result is most definitely a good thing. He doesn't use his voice as a voice, but rather an instrument. Sometimes it's a snare drum, sometimes it's Tenor Saxophone, but whatever it may be, it's always used to elevate atmosphere, dissonance, and energy to a level the band has never before been able to reach.
Eight minutes left. The moon was hiding behind a cloud. Most of my opinions about the album's strengths and lack of weaknesses had already been formed when I was greeted by the best track of the entire release. It was reminiscent of Swan's previous works, having the same restraint giving way to madness that they thrived on. Satisfied and empowered, I started walking back to my house when suddenly pandemonium broke loose. The last few minutes of the album were a prime example of how visceral, angry, and forceful yet intimate Swans can be.
Some might say that this release's repetitious, drawn out tracks cause the overall theme to be dull and uninspired, but listening to this album in the expanse of nature has shown me that the opposite is true. This album is nature itself; it's free, it's animalistic, it's beautiful. Those who would rather stay inside the house of structure and predictability are more than welcome, but it's their loss. With this release, Swans has made an epic so good it seems untouched by human hands.