Michael Gira founded/guiding-lighted the sort of no-wave / noise / spiritual-purification band Swans in NYC 35 some odd years ago, and, roughly, he’s made a career out of trying musically to express the inexpressible ever since. After a hiatus of a few years, during which he formed Angels of Light, Gira re-formed Swans in 2010 and proceeded to release a series of exceedingly, brutally beautiful double-CDs of mental mayhem-catharsis.
The new Leaving Meaning, as the title might indicate, is a study in ambiguity and its cousin obliqueness, while not quite touching on ambivalence. To achieve the album’s sonically spectacular sagas, Gira drew upon several excellent “other music”-type players and thinkers, “selected,” he says, “for both their musical and personal character.” Participants include past Swans mates Kristof Hahn (guitars, vocals, mixes) and drummer/Mellotron-ist Larry Mullin (a.k.a. Toby Dammit, ex-Silver Apples, Residents and currently Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds keyboardist); Thor Harris on percussion, trumpet, clarinet, sounds, bells, vibes; electronics wiz Ben Frost; Anna and Maria von Hausswolff on choral backing vocals, and the incredible neo-cabaret singer-pianist Baby Dee.
Well, it’s expressionist, maybe. Leaving’s songs are only songs per se, the majority of them structured as repeated verses, without a traditional chorus or bridge, etc. The verses can be confessions, which become incantations via much repetition. The often Gregorian or Tibetan chantlike pieces are mostly long-ass things that build and build, accumulating volume and density, or bursting out in explosive surprises, like revelations. Gira flirts with boredom or irritation, but it says a lot about his and his players’ imaginative choices of tonalities and especially their judicious mixing that the resulting sonorities really are mesmerizing, not hectoring and tedious. In the best new music, after all, to create a third entity is the idea: 1+1= 3. Throughout the album, Gira and co. employ their many streams of sound to equate with any “meaning” to the songs at all. The basic gambit is to mix tonalities so that they confer and clash with other tonalities, creating overtones, microtones and such in the process.
While the brief opening track, “Hums,” is a morning glow / toward-radiance place, its shimmering, flickering multi-guitars and electronic drone feel misleading, like things can’t be this simple. The floating tenderness of “Annaline” (the Velvets’ “Sunday Morning” redux) follows with more of this shimmer of guitar/piano twinkle/strings. Gira croons in a space of mellow gold redemption, where he has stripped down for a cleansing. Everything on these opening tracks feels post-something, post-trauma of existence. There’s a creeping tension stretched to snapping in “The Hanging Man,” which at almost 11 minutes long is a cinematic epic of mass, density and intensity. Circular eighth-note string strums suggest forward motion (inevitability) as chugging, clip-clopping toms pound like Gira’s heartbeat. He snarl-sings “I am the hanging man!” in that sardonic, theatrical tone of his. And he’s not remorseless. This hangman is condemned to endlessly loop choice / no choice, i.e., What was it that made him the hanging man? Flies and crows and impassive faces fry in the sun. “I am –” “I am not!” “We are not!” Snare rimshots like a guillotine…
Michael Gira rehearsing “Sunfucker,” accompanied by Howler the dog
The Jodorowsky-like atmosphere of this buzzard chant is so visual, circles circling circles of orange/yellow/brown/beige/black/red. And Gira’s core belief/disbelief can’t possibly be in your imagination. “Sunfucker” at 10 mins. 43 secs is a drone of looped organ and clanging church bell and chorus vocals: Its chant of “the rainbow” over and over inevitably grafts onto his query, “Why am I on the cusp?” and descends to, whatever, “I worship sunfucker” again and again and again. He and the song plod forward, swelling, linear to the point of madness. While the overall sonic and lyrical austerity itself suggests semi-suppressed violence, methinks it’s the sound itself that leads Gira forward on, determines his words and their possible intent. The album’s intriguingly orchestrated settings’ main instrument is vast spheres of empty space that can inflict a useful sort of claustrophobia. He’s painting with shards of sound, forging oblique and deeply resonant harmonic effects along the way. Starfalls of celeste, guitar/other swells/saws the size of ocean liners, slow waves of double bass, rolling snare, piano tinkle, sustained spectral chords: rolling thunder, imminent danger.
from Leaving Meaning, “It’s Coming It’s Real”
Along with “The Nub,” with guest collaboration by Australia’s superb the Necks, tracks such as “Amnesia” posit that post-something/I am a ghost sensation amid gentle acoustic guitars in repetitive figures, drifting along at an easy pace. Boom! It breaks into gargantuan multi-instrumental waves of rolling tympani, chorus and sundry other stuff. Great obscure textures, and not exactly gloomy or forbidding – resonantly oblique is more like it. “Some New Things” offers Gira’s white boy punky vocal lead over looped riff drums and other kinda-rock sounds to give us a bit of good groove, as if to recall another kind of Earthboundness.
Swans delineate a time and place, right-brained ones that synthesize over space, don’t analyze through time, despite the music’s severe linearity. Leaving Meaning is a reverbed hall of mirrors, or it’s a gathering around firelight flickering on crepuscular, summoning faces. Somewhere in the midst of all this, Gira says, “I’m naked and drifting,” “Who made us like this?” “How much time is left?” We too might have perceived the difference between terror and strangeness, or the connection: It’s whatever you want it to be.
John Payne is Music Critic at Riot Material. He also writes about music and film at publications including Mojo, The Quietus, Red Bulletin, Drum!, High Times and Bluefat. Mr. Payne is the former music editor of LA Weekly, and the author of the forthcoming official Diamanda Galás biography Homicidal Love Songs and editor/co-author of Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer (Unbound, spring 2019).