If there was one personal musical discovery this year that dwarfed all others it would be the band SWANS. For a band who’s music spans decades I have definitely come late to the party.
I first heard about them from favourable reviews on the release of their 2012 album The Seer and listened to the track “Mother Of The World”. At the time it’s looping rhythms and heavy breathing took me to an uncomfortable place but it’s unique vision and sound flagged up as something important that I needed to study further. Unfortunately those thoughts passed by and I never looked further into The Seer at the time.
Then in 2014 their album “To Be Kind” arrived with more critical applause and I picked it up towards the end of the year and relay enjoyed it but was still struggling with it by the point I wrote my end of year list. I’m sorry to say that because of this it didn’t make the list. What it did do though was stick with me, growing into my most listened to album the preceding year and still a strong contender in my playlists today. The uniqueness and power of the SWANS sound takes time to digest but once you get it they become these long all consuming artworks that verge on the hypnotic. It’s a sound that has taken years to develop but truly cemented its self on The Seer and then has been experimented with further on To Be Kind and now this years album The Glowing Man to create one of the greatest album trilogies recorded.
As a whole The Glowing Man is certainly the calmest of the trilogy with the roaring distorted guitars and more aggressive soundscapes limited to occasional use rather than the all out pummelling they create on To Be Kind. But this limitation allows simpler subtleties to become the driving forces of the tracks. On these three albums Swans have always focused on heavy repetition of live instrumentation which makes smaller changes noticeable to the listener. On the glowing man this can be as small as the change in pattern of Hi-hat. So when it does increase into the heavier elements they are even more hard hitting for the listener, creating sounds that at one point can be completely uplifting before feeling all consuming by their second repetition.
This and their previous works mentioned are all a masterclass in repetition and how you can play the same single bar structures for many minutes without loosing their power or intrigue. This is created due to the incredible talent in finding catchy grooves but also the organic nature of the pieces. Songs drift in tempo and dynamics which would sound sloppy for a band that weren’t as attuned to each other as SWANS are. Instead this becomes another tool to create moments of tension and release. Builds in the music that sound epic to almost biblical proportions, when analysed, are often created with very subtle changes in melody or instrumentation. An achievement that can only come from the experience and mastery of their sound.
Add to that the lyrics of Michal Gira which reach into the void and pull out bleak, sinister and cryptic iconography. It’s not a pleasant world that is being portrayed here more a spawning writhing mass of obscenity and evil. However like all good horror he rarely reveals the monsters instead placing small phrases and word associations into the listeners mind and allowing them to make their own conclusions and have there own revelations as to the Music’s subject matter.
You mix this style of conceptual lyrical delivery that allows the mind to wonder with these looping patterns of instrumentation and the music can turn into something hypnotic. A trance that can detach you from your surroundings and pull on your emotions. Playing with your ideas and expectations of what music like this can be. It does this with such a flair and expertise that you accept these more experimental ideas as normal. If this is the last album to come from SWANS in the near future, (as Michal Gira has stated) it will be a shame. But they has left us with a trilogy of albums that will hold there own for years to come. Glowing Man stands on its own as a brilliant work and also an incredible conclusion to the unique style created and developed over the past four years of releases.