Swans - The Glowing Man (Mute) 2016
Since their resurrection in 2010, each new Swans album has arrived garnered with ever more heft and gravitas. Michael Gira and this current incarnation of his soul-scouring operation have coordinated a tightly focused schedule of recording and touring which now seems to have reached its peak and finale with this almighty piece of work. The fourth “official” album since that surprise renewal of the Swans name and the third in a row comprising a mammoth two-hour running time to drag you head first through varying degrees of intensity. The work of Gira and his cohorts has come to increasingly resemble the densely-packed and weighty cinema of a filmmaker such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, with each release growing in magnitude and scope as it determinedly scrutinises and chips away at the vast unknowable rock-face of human emotion. With this comparison in mind, The Glowing Man is Swans’ “Winter Sleep”.
“Cloud of Forgetting” begins proceedings as epic sweep across an immense tundra of the mind’s eye, a scene-setting while Gira sings as though to a sick dog which shivers and shakes in the dark. Wired and highly-strung guitars are embellished by keyboard swathes akin to Alice Coltrane’s astral meditations, a cosmic jazz influence which makes its presence felt noticeably throughout The Glowing Man. “Cloud of Unknowing”, 25 minutes in length and the first of three such epic pieces, emerges in the twilit glade where violins go to wither and die before a sudden acceleration, like we have been tied to the back of a souped-up drag race car which then thunders down scorched byways with our battered and bloodied bodies to the rear. A locked rhythm stays sharply grounded as a vortex of disembodied voices howls in its attempt to gain flight from the benighted earth. Gira now sings of “suckers” and “healers” and the whole piece is a sustained climactic blow-out, with prolonged energy levels akin to works such as John Coltrane’s Ascension.
A shorter piece such as “People Like Us” takes the bluesy twang of a double bass and makes it the centre of a drunken sea shanty aboard a sinking boat, Gira’s verse telling that the “…sky shows a bruise where our fingers have touched…” and “…we’re tracing our shape on the walls of your house…”. This waking dream of violence foretold and remembered continues, to unsettling effect, on “When Will I Return” on which Gira’s wife, Jennifer, with haunting yet brutal clarity, sings of the “…car door open wide…”, “…I scream until he’s gone”. The ferocious title piece takes shimmering keys and aggressive hypno-buzz guitar (“He’s a real heartbreaker, he’s a real headsplitter”) and detonates into a blast of impotent, self-abnegating catharsis. “I am a glowing man, I am” is screeched as volatile waves of pummelling noise buffet the carriage. By the end, Gira gives out a retching cry as the band woozily steady themselves, like they know they may have gone too far and punched through the wall only to trace their fingers across a void.
This is the end of this embodiment of Swans and they take their leave with “Finally Peace”, a starry-eyed country gospel lament which offers soothing balm and some form of calming settlement in recognition of the furies which have passed. The Glowing Man is not so much a record as a living experience, a definitive slab of contemporary Americana. An essential piece of work, it demands your time and attention. In return, one day it may fully give up all its secrets.