No country for old Swans
On the heels of last year's brilliant comeback, Michael Gira barrels headlong into the future
Swans Are Dead, the title that singer/guitarist Michael Gira slapped on the group's 1998 live album was to be the last word on the post-industrial titan's fate. After laying Swans to rest, Gira found new life in various other musical guises. Whether leading the spectral Americana traipse of the Angels of Light, or by introducing such mid-aughts freak-folk fixtures as Devendra Banhart, Akron/Family and Dahlonega's witchy songstress Larkin Grimm through his self-run Young God Records, Gira holds a unique place in indie music's cultural landscape. "I'm a good survivor," Gira says. "I've kept myself alive through music since I was a teenager, and I've always found a way to keep moving along."
This perpetual motion took an unexpected turn in September 2010 when Gira, now 57, unveiled My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, the first new material to invoke Swans' name since 1996. The album arrived as an elegant monster, giving new life to the group and facilitating a new twist for Gira.
Since releasing My Father, Gira has reconceptualized the group's visceral and spiritual sonic experiences without looking back for the sake of nostalgia.
While this is unmistakably a return to Swans' colossal form, the album finds Gira opening an entirely new chapter. "What we do has to be vital and new, and even a little uncomfortable sometimes," Gira says. "Otherwise I don't see any point in doing this."
Swans was born amid New York's chaotic no wave and post-punk scenes in 1982. The group's first full-length, Filth, was steeped in the aesthetics of violence and psycho-sexual antagonism as performance art. Gira even staggered into the crowd to provoke audience members during some early shows, but there was always textural intricacy to the music. Later albums, such as White Light From the Mouth of Infinity (1991) and Love of Life (1992), tempered the group's brooding character with ethereal acoustic strumming and bold orchestral arrangements.
But sweeping changes, including the departure of Gira's longtime collaborator/partner Jarboe, left a dark cloud over the group, and by the late '90s Swans had run its course.
After calling it quits, Gira veered into earthy and experimental country songwriting with the Angels of Light. With five albums, including 2001's stunning masterpiece How I Loved You, he reinvented himself by embracing warm and traditional melodies. But following 2007's We Are Him, he was struck by the urge to look deeper within himself. "I started writing, expecting to do another Angels of Light record, but I realized that making that kind of music had lost its charm for me," Gira says. "We played the hell out of the new songs, 12 hours a day each, and gradually they became Swans songs."
With a lineup that includes some of his longest-standing musical cohorts — Norman Westberg (guitar), Christoph Hahn (guitar), Phil Puleo (percussion), Thor Harris (percussion, keys, etc.) and newcomer Chris Pravdica (bass) — Gira channeled his refined focus into Swans' beastial plod, thereby opening new dimensions to explore. "The same person is writing these songs with many of the same people," he adds. "It's just done in a different context."
For My Father, Gira pulled as much from Swans' legacy as he did from Angels of Light. The swarm of chimes and militaristic dirge in "No Words/No Thoughts" are cut from the same dark matter that has always driven Swans' nightmarish skulk. Other songs, such as "Jim" and "Reeling the Liars In," stand at a crossroads of menacing atmosphere and composed acoustic ruminations. Westberg holds the reins on the harmonic guitar swirls, leading Swans into the unknown. And the power behind every song is brought to a point by Gira's barrel-chested voice while choruses build, shift and rise with the passion of a gospel choir on judgment day.
During recent performances, sonic tension has amassed on stage inside a droning 30-minute wash of rhythms and harmonics titled "Apostate" that reaches earth-shaking magnitude. It's captured on a live double CD, We Rose From Your Bed With the Sun in Our Heads, due out via Young God in October.
Only one older Swans' song — "I Crawled," from the 1984 Young God EP — has returned from the din, but in a much less confrontational state. "There are very few older songs that I'm comfortable doing without feeling like I'm aping the past," Gira says. "I'm fairly pleased with this record, but I'm more excited by the one we're working on now, which will be an even more purely Swans experience."
If Gira's evolving vision for the future proves anything, it's that Swans most certainly is not dead.