The Glowing Man
Rock n’ roll as Mantra
by Jericho Cerrona
Seen as a grand send-off for the current Swans lineup, The Glowing Man is an examination of mood and atmosphere in which singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira tests listeners patience for withstanding sonic overload. Though there are breaks in between the squalls of drone by what often appear to be lyrical optimism, the overwhelming vision here is akin to orchestral walls of pure dread. Ever since reforming in 2010 with My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky after a 14-year absence, Swans have continued pushing the limits of their symphonic aesthetic; culminating in 2012’s The Seer and career highlight To Be Kind in 2014. The latter was a rarefied thing in how it actively resisted the idea of latching onto singles or skipping through tracks, instead unfolding over the course of 2 discs spanning 121 minutes. Honestly, this has always been a part of the band’s persona, but even though ambitious and heavy as fuck, To Be Kind also contained moments of tranquility amidst the apocalyptic noise.
With The Glowing Man, Gira and company have given their fans a suitably cacophonous ending to a trilogy while still managing to create a work which stands on its own. Both The Seer and To Be Kind were exhausting efforts which in some senses reached towards ecstasy, but just what that meant or how it could be obtained remained elusive. Was Gira haunted by past sins or simply wallowing in the most painfully bleak contours of human existence? And if there were answers to some of our most basic human desires, why even try looking for them when this world is, for lack of a better term, a shit-hole? This dichotomy between light and darkness, pain and jubilation, mockery and sincerity, is at the heart of what makes Swans such an indispensible unit, and these juxtapositions are all over their latest effort. This time, however, Gira seems less anxious about impending disaster and a little more open to the possibilities of spiritual enlightenment. The key to the album, therefore, is recognizing how the meditative befriends the chaotic. If To Be Kind was Gira’s nightmare and by extension, our own, then The Glowing Man is what happens once one wakes up in a pool of sweat and jittery nerves to realize the sun is rising.
Of course, if Swans weren’t so skilled at this type of thing, they could easily be written off as self-serious wankers using feedback, heavy distortion, thunderous drumming, and repetitive grooves in order to showcase just how sad and lonely they are, but the band is old enough (Gira is now 62), to at least appreciate the temporal nature of everything. If the search for higher meaning or orgasmic release or some kind of “balance” can be attained through mantra, then Swans just might be the vessel en route to the divine. Clocking in at just under two hours, The Glowing Man is a much calmer, more esoteric effort than the group’s last two records, but the real key here is the idea of unified cyclicality-- so many of the compositions here play like extended jam sessions that also happen to be carefully arranged--and even though Gira’s monotone howl is often the driving force, he never completely overwhelms the collaborative essence of the music. Drummers Phil Puleo and Thor Harris create textured knots of repetition. Guitarist Christoph Hahn lays down some lap steel. Bassist Christopher Pravdica and guitarist Norman Westberg rumble, rip, and trudge along. It’s all in keeping with a unifying vision for the “greater good” or to usher in the end of the world or to provide a few moments of Zen just before the sky opens up to swallow us all whole. It’s all for the best or the worst, depending on your perspective.
With the opening one-two punch of “Cloud of Forgetting” and “Cloud of Unknowing”, it’s abundantly clear that Swans are going for a ritualistic approach which begins like a prayer before spiraling out into a propulsive trance state. Breathing, breaching, leaving, reaching/ God, oh God, I’m leaving, I’m leaving… Gira intones like a grand High Priest over intensely building percussion, wailing guitars, and walls of drone. Elsewhere, he references hard drugs (“Frankie M”), toxic relationships (“”When Will I Return”, featuring Gira’s wife Jennifer on vocals) and most fittingly, the spectre of physical vanity on closer “Finally, Peace”, which has the haunting line All creation is hollow/ and a picture’s a shadow.
As a capper, The Glowing Man is not nearly as surprising as The Seer or as overpowering as To Be Kind. Instead, it exists as an almost ethereal answer to the kind of jack-hammer intensity the band have owned for decades now. Of course, this thing is still gargantuan in its own right; hell, the nearly 30-minute title track alone is a study in rampaging sonic dynamics. On the other hand, the album’s shortest track, “People Like Us”, is a four-and-a-half minute psych folk ditty which conjures Pink Floyd acid flashbacks. Ultimately, it’s this study in opposites--of finding hope in darkness, of seeing God in the Devil’s eyes, of blowing out eardrums while also soothing the mind--to which Swans aspire, and that alone is something messianic in a world of musical mediocrity.