Everything Is Good Here…
Since the Swans broke up after 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind, Michael Gira has remained one of the busiest men in music. His Brooklyn-based label, Young God Records, has released dozens of albums by an international collection of jazz, rock, noise, folk and experimental groups. He’s repackaged several old Swans records, released a spoken-word album and recorded his own music with a variety of musicians and under a variety of monikers—the Body Lovers, the Body Haters and Angels of Light.
Each post-Swans bands had a different attitude. The Body Haters was pure, rabid noise. The Body Lovers was noisy too, but more refined. Of them all, Angels of Light remains the most direct descendant of the Swans, continuing along the same trajectory the Swans were following when they broke up. That is to say, the songs on this third Angels of Light album bear no resemblance whatsoever to early Swans recordings. There are tunes here, and real singing, and more traditional song structures (and all the songs come in at under seven minutes). There are plenty of acoustic numbers, too. Not to say that there aren’t the occasional howls and explosions of sharp noise and untuned guitars—but there’s plenty else going on there as well.
Gira’s working here with a massive array of musicians, playing not only the traditional guitars and percussion, but piano, violin, banjo, mandolin, dulcimer, keyboards—and a multitude of sound effects. Though I certainly hesitate to use the word "delicate" when it comes to describing any Gira project, it almost works here. No, instead of "delicate," let’s say "complex." There. That’s better.
Lyrically, Gira remains unmistakable. On the surface, as words alone, they seem simple enough. Sometimes dark, sometimes simply obscure, sparse portraits, usually of women, usually loaded with vague but very physical descriptions. But once the words are laid beneath the music (and once Gira begins intoning them), they take on an entirely different quality. They become songs full of sadness, distance, dread and longing. Sometimes full of melancholy beauty, as in the opening number, "Palisades"—and sometimes full of rage, as in "The Family God," which ends with Gira screaming, "Give me some more!" over and over. They’re songs guaranteed to take even the best mood in the world and drive it skull-first into the pavement.
There are times when it’s difficult to tell when one song ends and the next begins—but oddly, that’s okay. There’s always been an hypnotic quality to Gira’s work, evident even in the earliest Swans recordings. It’s always seemed that they aren’t songs he’s writing so much as incantations.
With this latest album, Gira proves again that he’s a rarity amongst musicians (especially of the underground variety). He’s been able to go from fronting the Loudest Band in the World (which sometimes seemed to be that way for the sheer sake of being the Loudest Band in the World) to fronting one of the most interesting, subtle and intelligent experimental ensembles around. And for all that, they’re still mighty grim!