“Red Velvet Corridor” opens the Swans album “Soundtracks For The Blind,” which sent the band off for a ten year hiatus between album releases.
Swans greatest achievement is arguably their ability to develop and then transport the listener to environments that are so visceral you become part of them. These worlds are often not welcoming places and can involve some of the darker, sinister sides of humanity. This makes the group polarizing to listeners who find their subject matter uncomfortable to hear. But, for me, the craft required in their creations makes this band one of my favorites.
Red Velvet Corridor sets the scene for this album perfectly with its mechanical loops and drone textures, and a sound that sits somewhere between metal rubbing together and a human breathing. Its title reminds me of Twin Peaks, and so does the music with its off kilter and slightly disorientating atonal style. It doesn’t sit quite naturally on the ears, creating a surreal environment that leads you into the rest or the album:
As the year comes to an end It was time to celebrate my favourite music of the year with my list and a brief review of my favourite five albums. they are in no particular order (excluding the album of the year). Feel free to click the links below and give them a read.
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.
Since my introduction in 2012 with their album The Seer, SWANS have continued to grow on me as a band over their last three albums to becoming one of my favourite acts currently working today. So armed with some earplugs and high expectations I went to see them perform In Manchester last Sunday and wasn’t disappointed. This form of music could only come from the stubborn and clear vision of Michael Gira who controlled the band and the audience with a firm hand and steely determination.
The Highlight of the night was their complete playing of The Glowing Man, the title track on their most recent album. At just under 30 Minutes long the track goes through movements reminiscent of classical music but with the far harsher tones of modern electric instrumentation. It’s these movements that epitomise SWANS. Repetitive walls of distortion crash over you, battering your mind into a hypnotic trance before falling away to quiet, detailed and often beautiful instrumentation which is extenuated by the music surrounding it.
Live they also achieve a huge dynamic range, being one of the loudest acts I’ve ever heard but also playing quiet enough to hear Michael Gira sing without a microphone on occasion. If you get a chance to experience their show go along, just make sure you take some hearing protection with you. The Glowing Man demonstrates every element of what makes SWANS great with no compromises:
It’s been one of those weeks, one of those weeks where you need a band like Swans in your life.
Dystopian, relentless grooves that pound into your very soul. Words that vary from passive aggression, downright hedonism to cosmic horror. Since their reforming in 1997 they have built up and developed this sound to it’s pinical on the last 3 albums which finishes with The Glowing Man their final work in the current bands formation.
Swans aren’t an easy listen and took me many repeat attempts to get into. Their sound doesn’t try to pander to public consensus instead it’s an outspoken unique voice of creativity and vision. Lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira has cut his own way through the music industry. For years his small but dedicated fan base have crowd funded his creative endeavours before the likes of Kickstarer existed.
Because of this Swans have developed a sound that is rather unique, although I could relate it to the likes of acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor textually but with the repetitive live looping sound from album Remain In Light by Talking Heads. To recommend one track is hard because the albums very much feel like they should be played as a whole or at least on sides of a vinyl. But this is the Track of the week segment so I guess I should stick to convention.
So with much thought I decided to pick “The World looks Red/The World Looks Black” and for a few reasons. It’s from the latest album “the glowing man” and I think promoting the newer work is important. It also manages to convey the Swans sound which needs time to get going as the loops repeat and build into an uproar of electric guitar and heavy bass and the track does this quite concisely for their works at just under fifteen minutes long. Finally it sonically has a lot of the textures from the previous two albums on this work. Through listening to the Swans back catalogue you get a real feeling of progression as they develop some ideas and remove others. This creates albums that although based round the same gene of ideas are varied in sound. Different people will prefer different albums depending on the paths they have chosen to go down but the albums also work as a collection. Something I love as someone who listens to entire back catalogues of artists works.
Swans have been a unique voice in alternative music for decades now and will continue to in the future as the formation of the band change. Whatever happens next I will look forward to it with exited anticipation:
To be kind by Swans just missed out on my albums of the year list. This isn’t the kind of record you can put on in the background, it demands your attention and at over two hours long it can feel quite daunting to get into it. I also wouldn’t say the average listener of modern music (especially those who listen to albums rather than singles) will get much from the album. But those who like to immerse themselves in the music and are happy to give two hours of attention to an artist’s vision this could be something quite profound.
The Swans sound focuses on repetitive short melodies that will slowly build in layers over several minutes becoming more and more aggressive and oppressive. At first this can feel quite fatiguing but if you give it time it becomes hypnotic, almost meditative. This stems from the fundamental grooves, which are masterfully created. Short and often simple yet no matter how many times they are repeated, they never bore.
Oxygen comes towards the end of the second album and at 8 minutes long its one of the shorter tracks. It’s more direct, stripping away longer builds found on earlier parts of the album and getting straight into it. The standout drumming on this track by Phil Puleo is phenomenal which with the guitar guides the rest of the track to its harsh stabbing conclusion.
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