Monday, October 4, 2010

Music Review: Swans - My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

“Reactivated and invigorated, NOT a reunion” is how Young God contextualizes the first album in 14 years from legendary post-no wave provocateurs Swans. Fair enough. For his part, however, band leader Michael Gira went one step further in a recent interview with Grayson Currin in the Washington Post, likening the resurrected Swans experience to “mainlining heroine”. Needless to say, for every party involved, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky was a serious and well-considered endeavor on which to embark. Not that Gira’s dedication ever waned in the interim—and not that the Angels of Light ever exactly embodied their heavenly moniker—but I’m thinking that after a good decade of artistic reconciliation the Swans name has simply allowed him to access a very specific if intangible realm, a deep, dark pit of despair that he may not otherwise feel the need to consistently inhabit anymore. And perhaps it's this state of consciousness that allows one to un-ironically title one of the more initially inviting tracks on your new record “You Fucking People Make Me Sick”. No one but the man himself can say whether this is a healthy or potentially dangerous psychological move, but what it has yielded is one of Gira’s most immediate and punishing albums in years.

At ten minutes in length, epic opener “No Words/No Thoughts” begins as a bit of a fake-out, emanating through a procession of church bells and thus understandably putting one in the mindset for something along the lines of, say, apocalyptic post-rock, a strain of which Swans left us with on 1996s wildly experimental double album Soundtracks for the Blind. It’s not long, however, before the full band erupts mid-riff and Gira proceeds to damn everything from our increasingly blind civilization to our already stunted societal interaction. And it’s this mode in which Gira operates for the duration of the album. There are no subtle builds, droning interludes, or angelic female vocal showcases to be found; it’s all bile-inflected soothsaying, prophecies of hellfire and brimstone, scorched-earth desert-noise blues of a sort that Gira’s other projects could only occasionally approximate. It sounds everything and nothing like the Swans of yore, more tightly structured than their more recent material perhaps, but with the built-in contrasts of ten-plus years of stark, seething Angels of Light work. This is where Gira physically vents mounting frustrations.

Never one to exclude himself from his very own indictment, Gira implicates himself on the comparatively jaunty “Reeling the Liars In”, and it’s the stark contrast between the scathing lyrics and austere instrumentation that generates tension amidst some of the record’s quieter moments. It’s presumably what Grinderman were attempting to accomplish on their most recent record, but where the former have yet to reconcile the extremes without shoe-horning humor, Swans just annihilate all outlying emotion until the only suitable reaction is either nervous laughter or total sacrifice. The record’s two sides climax with “My Birth” and “Eden Prison” respectively, each representing Swans in classic rape-and-pillage mode, force feeding minimalist riffs through cascading sheets of napalm-level noise. Elsewhere, “Inside Madeline” breaches the divide, offering up five-plus minutes of instrumental magnification until the band simply collapses in on itself from the mounting intensity, leaving Gira alone amidst lightly strummed guitar and shimmering jew’s harp to offer such reassurances as “You are free, free to do nothing.”

So while the record does afford a few brief instances of respite, My Father’s true eye-of-the-storm moment comes through the album’s emotional centerpiece, the aforementioned “You Fucking People Make Me Sick”. A chilling duet between Young God alumni Devendra Banhart and Gira’s three year old daughter Saoirse, the song is violently ambiguous even by the lofty barometer set by the band in years past. Operating in his queasiest, most disquieting register, Banhart functions here as Gira’s surrogate, casually intoning his open-ended proverb via enigmatic lines like “Now diamonds are falling through a new wound in the sky/ Obsessions, pink children, they are laid out in a line/ They are screaming, they are polluting, they are demanding their life.” Later, as Saoirse echoes Banhart’s plea of “I love you, I need you, oh show me how to shine” the band snuffs out whatever glimmer of hope arises as the two continue to intertwine, upending the anxiety with a wall detuned piano chords and gut-churning horns. So yes, this is some bleak shit, thoroughly out-of-step with any sort of modern trends and knowingly confrontational in a way we’d fully expect from an album bearing the Swans name. And by those standards it is hard to ask for more. Just don’t call it a reunion. [83/100] [Published 10.12.10]

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