Yellow Swans announced their break-up in 2008, but as they slowly tied up the loose ends of the project with a few last small-run releases and a towering final album (Going Places ), it had been rather easy to take for granted their place in the underground. Yellow Swans are now officially all said and done, and the reverberations of their dissolution are just now beginning to be felt across the landscape of experimental music. Pete Swanson, one half of Yellow Swans and the more visible of the band’s two members, has so far kept a concurrent solo career afloat on the back of a built-in audience, but 2011 marks his introduction as a full-time solo figure. He certainly hasn’t lost his restless, prolific spirit in the transition: I Don’t Rock At All and Man With Potential—released just a few months apart and on different labels—document Swanson’s initial forays away from collaboration, and they couldn’t be more different.
The records’ aesthetic opposition is interesting to note as both were actually recorded in the same creative stint while Swanson holed up in a cabin earlier this year in Northwest Oregon. Best not to go in expecting any intimate one-man ruminations, though, as I Don’t Rock At All and Man With Potential are typically swarming displays of drone, power electronics, and disfigured beats. Swanson’s decision to compartmentalize these tendencies, thereby relegating these extremes to separate corners of his persona, lends each record its own unique vibe, but nevertheless there’s a certain strain of modesty that seems to unite the two in unlikely fashion. Again, this isn’t a modesty or restraint in sound—nary a moment passes when the sound channels aren’t bursting at the seams with incidental noise—but more in focus, the resultant structures of each piece and their parent album consciously self-contained. The six songs on Man With Potential, the more fascinating of the two records, average just about the same in duration, while the three longer pieces comprising I Don’t Rock At All only last a total of 27 minutes. Among other things, this attention to economy marks these records as two of Swanson’s most digestible and re-playable releases to date.
I Don’t Rock At All, which found its way out initially as a bonus disc in Three Lobed’s Not the Spaces You Know, But Between Them anniversary compilation, will be the more familiar sounding to those only acquainted with recent Yellow Swans material. Made up entirely of shimmering, elongated guitar drones, it’s one of most beautiful and outwardly emotional works Swanson has yet constructed, belying some of the cheekier surface elements of the release such as album art and song title selection. “Know When to Say Wha?” is ten minutes of dramatically cascading tones, slowly cresting to a full-bodied peak. It’s as ambiguous as its title suggests, but it’s dripping with palpable sensation. “Cocktail Champion” is even better, and as the second track works both as the centerpiece and beating heart of this brief record. Music of this sort is by its very nature relinquished to listener interpretation, but the sense of yearning emanating from each slow-roiling note of “Cocktail Champion” feels unmistakably passionate, an affecting glimpse at a mostly untapped vein in Swanson’s customary drone cycles. “Stuff It” closes the record with a similarly unfulfilled sense of ache, each chord stretched to the point of intangibility, nearly losing form as each lapping drone fades toward the horizon.
If I Don’t Rock At All revels in the comfort of Swanson’s instincts, then Man With Potential sees him pushing himself into brave new territory. Many have already labeled this Swanson’s techno record, as he does screw around with beat formations, occasionally locking into something at least resembling 4/4 time. It’s a little too diffuse, however, and a even more than little obtuse to seriously be mistaken for the work of a traditional techno producer, but it certainly does bump and stutter in ways much of Yellow Swans’ material only occasionally hinted at. There are definitely hints of early Yellow Swans here, and there’s even a passing resemblance to the short-circuiting gadgetry of At All Ends (2007), but mostly this feels like Swanson independently swinging for newly imposed fences. “Misery Beat” is a careening anti-dance number, stray tones buzzing insect-like around its hollowed-out, cyclical beat. “Remote View” and “AxOx0” drape industrial drone over subliminal downtempo foundations, bridging the gap between Coil and Boards of Canada. “Far Out” even begins like spacier take on Beaches & Canyons (2002)-era Black Dice before a restlessly tripping beat aligns it more closely with something off Broken Ear Record (2005).
Which is to say that what Swanson’s doing here isn’t exactly unprecedented—a more accurate comparison for the whole endeavor may simply be Mouthus—but as one of the initial steps away from his time in Yellow Swans, it’s both promising and satisfying. Perhaps more importantly, when taken together these two albums go a long way toward establishing a unique personality for Swanson away from his other projects, and as he continues to perfect his career-long aesthetic concerns while simultaneously pushing himself into new territory, it’s fair to assume that these prudent first steps will flower onto larger, even more ambitious canvasses in the very near future. [CMG]