Where to begin when talking about Swans? This is the band with arguably the richest history in experimental music. For starters there's their significance to ugly no-wave and noise rock in the eighties, with their first run of albums, then their evolution into more ethereal music which led up to their tenth and final album before initially breaking up, 1996's 'Soundtracks For The Blind' an album about two and a half hours long which included soaring post-rock, animalistic noisy numbers as well as twisted exercises in the sinister thanks to an eerie use of sampling and the record is widely considered a masterpiece in the strange.
However, when Swans got back together in 2010 it was more than just a reunion, it was a rebirth. A new era for the band which has seen them put out some of the strongest material of their legacy, most notably 2014's 'To Be Kind' a two-hour long epic which balanced their freakiness with solid, captivating groove and arguably dethroned 'Soundtracks For The Blind as Swans' magnum opus. They're back with newest release 'The Glowing Man' which sees Swans continue to be mesmerising with their work.
This album kicks off with the haunting 'Cloud of Forgetting', with each instrument feeling like a looming spirit, whether that be the minimal guitars, the exhausted drums, Michael Gira's drawn out, morose voice or the bendy keyboard. Each element drags itself along for ten minutes before coming back to the world of the living with everything becoming rock solid in the form of the guitars and other instrumentation stomping in unison.
'Cloud of Unknowing' spends about five minutes in haziness due to sharp, wiry strings and foggy guitar, before ascending into a hypnotic trance of tired drums and limp guitars that feel like they're marching through a desert they way they're taking so much time as if there's no other option. Gira howls along with the music, holding lengthy notes adding to the unsettling tension. Roughly 12 minutes in everything begins to drone in defeat, before a sudden bombardment of drums and ominous chords enter making it seem like the song is suddenly trying to escape a sandstorm, however still maintains the mesmerising power. This track then descends into just a moderate tapping of the percussion, whilst the guitar transitions into light strokes, making you feel like you're back track on the path this song initially set you on. It's incredible the journey Swans can take you on with just one track. It might sometimes take a few dozen minutes, but Swans can do more with just one track than a lot of bands can do with a whole album.
'The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black' is calm, classy and even a little friendly at first thanks to sophisticated keys and laid-back guitar, however like with pretty much any Swans song there's something menacing underlying. Most of this track feels like the devil tricking you into thinking he is kind the way Gira's sinister vocals counter the smooth music. Things start to get lively with stabbing horns and the rhythm picking up pace. You know they're building up to something, but not a bang, instead the track ends up just ending with three minutes of angelic, tingling tremolo picking as well as sunray-like keys, like you've successfully reached the gates of heaven and the devilish charm the song had at the start turned out to be just a test you had to get through.
'Frankie M' drones for several minutes with captivating, drawn-out wraithlike vocals and ghostly keys, before the instrumentation suddenly starts pounding relentlessly for a while. It tires you out with its relentlessness, but then collapses into breezy guitar strokes as if it's a boxer wiped out from throwing as many hard and fast punches as they could, now happy to just have a light spar with you, but inevitably gets feisty again with the pace picking back up after cooling off a bit.
On the title track Gira delivers his most outlandish vocals on the record, sounding like he's chanting in an African tribe whilst light percussion is speedily hit, to reinforce Gira's manic delivery, which really drives this part of the song. We then shift into this section of the instrumentation hitting back and forth in unison, until being broken up by scattered drums. There's then a part where the track will keep switching between peaceful tranquillity and savage bursts of clattering noise, like a Death Star needing to recharge. After 15 minutes of bedlam, this track suddenly bursts out into a more danceable tune, with the instruments taking a groovy turn, making your head bob. There's still an element of intensity though, the way this there was so much chaos leading up to this and it almost feels like a trap, it seems too nice after so much aggression. Not too surprisingly, the song eventually does go full-on typical Swans madness with stomping guitars and cascading keys which together feel like an avalanche.
That's the long songs on this record, but there's some short ones which break up the giants. 'People Like Us' feels like it'd fit perfectly on an episode of Twin Peaks the way it's in this purgatory-like setting with the devilish guitars not exactly going anywhere, but is so blazay in how laid back they're played. Lynch, if you're reading, get this in season 3.
The aptly titled 'Finally, Peace.' closes this colossal record with just a short (by the standards of this record at least) and sweet wandering tune. This track feels like a victory song after a battle, but one that acknowledges the loses of the fight, the way 'the glory is mine is repeated' in a solemn way that marches forward, yet is still defensive. It's the perfect track to wrap up 'The Glowing Man' after a ton of intensity being built up over the majority of two hours, this feels like pressure being released from the valve.
'The Glowing Man' sees Swans maintain their ability to create music that's always gripping, regardless of if a song's five minutes or 25, if the music is slow burning or punchy, if the mood is morose or victorious. Anything is possible in music, all bands are limitless in their possibilities, Swans are just one of those rare bands who take full advantage of that freedom. 34 years after their inception, Swans' fearless journey continues to be one of the most stimulating in music.