It is with a severe level of excitement that I present my review of the new Swans LP – My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky.
Incredibly, it’s been 14 years since the release of the last full-length. Soundtracks for the Blind was a daunting and thorough two-disc collage – a seemingly conclusive statement, appearing to wring out the last of what Gira wished to express under the Swans moniker via an extensive array of means – soundscapes, live cuts, drones, electronic beats, post-rock, deceptively pretty synthesisers, spoken word passages, with Michael’s distinctive singing voice a haunting and recurrent theme.
In terms of sound, My Father… doesn’t exactly pick up from there. Nor would it slip comfortably under Gira’s Angels of Light project, which has been running since the initial de-activation of Swans. There are strong elements of both, but as Gira said himself, the Swans idea was revived as a means to move forward, and ultimately, the album does just that.
Those who picked up I Am Not Insane (a collection of Gira’s initial album ideas, presented as solo pieces for voice and acoustic guitar) will be soon to realise just how skeletal those versions were. Their transformation is astonishing – although most of the melodies and lyrics remain just about intact, these early sketches are almost unrecognisable in amongst the heaps of instrumentation and collaborative ideas that have been piled on top by the rest of the line up. A towering atmosphere has gathered to decorate the bare bones of what Gira brought to the table, and it’s unmistakably Swans – clattering and rickety and unstable – forever ominous and occasionally plainly terrifying.
“No Words/No Thoughts” was my easily my least favourite track from I Am Not Insane, but here it’s a brutally brilliant opener, exploding from the initial introduction of glistening chimes as a thundering one-chord catastrophe. It’s left as a pummelling loop for a full three minutes, featuring warped electronics, backwards cymbals and what sounds like trombones screaming in piercing slides, before breaking down and allowing Gira to finally makes his vocal entry. It’s at the point that his perfectly executed baritone drawl enters the piece that it becomes beyond doubt that Swans have continued to maintain the high standard left by Soundtracks for the Blind back in 1996. He is on blinding form.
Elsewhere there’s “Jim”, lurching forward on a heave-ho rhythm that rattles and thuds on piano and guitar battered in unison. Personally I hear a likeness to “All Souls’ Rising” by Angels of Light for the way in which it almost stops and starts in these hefty lumbering steps, with an organic intensity that arises out of the musician – the velocity and anger behind each hit and strum, not just the timbre of the instrument.
“You Fucking People Make Me Sick” is the only track that wasn’t present on I Am Not Insane and it’s probably the most unnerving piece of the lot. Contorted vocals from Devendra Banhart are echoed in a twisted child-like tone and scattered across minor-chord guitar jangle, before the piece cuts abruptly into a brilliant interplay between percussive stomp and a juddering flourish of piano dissonance. After countless listens, I’ve yet to fully “get” the nightmarish and bizarre first half, but find myself in absolute awe of the harrowing noise of the second. A lot of these pieces are left to spiral off on their own accord, often giving way to freakish atonal experimentation and leaving the sound of a band completely enveloped in their own grooves, playing off of each other with an unspoken musical understanding. It’s fascinating to hear, if not always immediately accessible.
After the thudding locomotive of “Eden Prison”, “Little Mouth” closes the album on a weary melancholy deeply rooted in Angels of Light, with a thick chorus of backing vocals guiding it forward. The final minute sees the instruments away to leave Michael singing into silence – a particularly beautiful highlight from I Am Not Insane that was thankfully retained for the final product. In fact, it’s these closing stages that highlight a particular worry I had prior to going into my first listen. Would the full band versions of these tracks do justice to the strength of the song-writing at work on I Am Not Insane? I needn’t have given it a moment thought. Swans Are Not Dead.