Album Review: Swans – The Glowing Man

SWANS have one of the most intriguing discographies in music and with front man Michael Gira recently announcing that The Glowing Man would be the last for this incarnation of the band,  it makes it a pivotal part of the history. So after the seminal To Be Kind, does The Glowing Man act as a grand finale, or a dud?

One of the first things you notice about opener ‘Cloud of Forgetting’ is how… lush, the instrumentation feels. On To Be Kind we opened with creeping bass and guitar, one this track we almost angelic guitars and piano, and Michael Gira’s vocals feel fleshed out and operatic, especially during those climactic shouts. The heavy guitars are still there, but they feel more like a gradual climax, as opposed to shock factor.

When we get to ‘Cloud of Unknowing’, however, it takes a sinister turn. Opening with these erratic strings and chugging bass lines, it’s a track that could have fit in excellently on To Be Kind or The Seer. The effect of the cymbals and screaming guitars are practically chilling, but feel too familiar to really take effect. But when the drum and bass beat comes in… wow. Gira’s vocals are more of that crawling, creeping, slimy and downright disgusting performance we’ve come to expect, but it plays up really well. Around the half way mark, the song tones down, bringing in this sparse acoustic guitars that work well after the tremendous noise we just experiences. And, oh my god, when the choir comes in; pure, sadistic, bliss!

‘The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black’ has a much faster pace than its predecessors. The drum and percussion beats keep the songs going as the guitar and piano flutter above it. Gira’s drawl doesn’t quite lock into the grooves, and almost feels out of place to begin with. But when we get to part two (presumably ‘The World Looks Black’) a really nice groove kicks in and takes the song up a notch. The group vocals feel like chant, a threatening, sly chant. The cataclysmic horns add some extra chaos to the song as well. Gira’s vocals finally fit the beat and scuttle like insects across the upper and lower registers. The relatively short ‘People Like Us’ follows, and has a bar-like swagger that milks the slide-guitar and breaks up the album nicely. It’s obviously not the most exciting track on the record, but it acts as a decent halfway point.

‘Frankie M’ opens with some haunting cymbals and synthersizers, a change of pace for the album. The addition of the female vocals really adds to the effect, and eventually the songs builds up to an effect that feels like heaven and hell combined. Like a lot of Swans’ later material, it feels like a song that has to be played loud to be really experienced. After a short lull, the full effect kicks in, with a constant bass drum pounding and chunky guitar riffs. While it doesn’t necessarily break the mould from the songs we’ve seen so far on the record, it doesn’t make it any less awesome and gigantic. Once again, we get a change of pace around the midway of the song. The kick drum and bell comes back in and the light guitar progression, coupled with Gira’s decipherable vocals, lend some progressive power to proceedings.

Follower ‘When Will I Return?’ is a sombre number that opens with some simple, yet effective acoustic guitar. The vocals, by Jennifer Gira, are really wonderful, and tell a story of what appears to be a failed romance. The backing instrumentation comes and goes, and with so many tracks on this album being dark through heavy instrumentation, there’s something sinister about this track that it does through vocals alone. When the beat kicks in it essentially provides an outro, or conclusion to the story that Jennifer is telling.

The title track starts off, and the erratic cymbals, thick bass line and backing vocals aren’t mind blowing but certainly pick things up a bit. Annoyingly, it feels relatively safe. It’s classic Swans, but after all we’ve been through in this album, it’s not quite enough to impress. When we hit the half way point, again, we get a change of pace. Yeah, it’s becoming predictable, but the direction it takes at least shakes the track up a bit. I did enjoy Gira’s cry of ‘I am a glowing, glowing man!’ and the edition of strings near the end of the track asks a Hitchcock-esque effect that works really well. On the whole, this track is enjoyable, but doesn’t really hold up the standard we’ve come to expect.

The closing track ‘Finally, Peace’ pretty much does what it says on the tin. After the turmoil of the title track, the pretty piano and strings, accompanied by (dare I say it) sing-a-long vocals is a pleasant relief from what we’ve been through, not just in this album, but through all of Swan’s albums since their reincarnation. Like ‘When Will I Return’ this is one of the shorter tracks on the album, but actually one of the best. It’s joyful, lovely and raises your hopes; perhaps the first Swans track to ever do that.

On the whole, The Glowing Man is a very good album, but can’t help being overwhelmed by its predecessors. Their ghosts still haunt the corners of these tracks, and not always in a good way. But the negatives of this record are outweighed by the many positives, and Swans’ talent for creating eerie, immersive soundscapes shines through on this excellent record.

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