-Experimental rock giants release their final album in this lineup.
Leading up to the release of this album, I was feeling a mixture of big time excitement and apprehension. On one hand, I’m a huge fan of this band, particularly of their last two albums, the first two installments of this trilogy that comes to a close here. But that was just the problem. This was the third album in a row that would be two hours long, repetitive, loud, religiously themed, and extravagant. And the snippets that preceded the album’s release weren’t helping my fear that this album wouldn’t different enough. They made it clear that “To Be Kind” and “The Seer” had taken this sound/idea as far as it would go, as they just seemed like retreads. Well, was I right in my fear? Yes and no. “The Glowing Man” definitely does not bring anything new to the table for this now-defunct incarnation of the band, but does that make it a bad album? Absolutely not. “The Glowing Man” is a really strong release, albeit way more inconsistent than the last two.
In typical Swans fashion, this album opens great. Some breathtakingly gorgeous tremolo picked guitar sets the stage for a slow, creeping groove that lasts for 10+ minutes, and over it Michael Gira yells, bellows, calls out to God seemingly, etc. Yes, it’s basically exactly what they’ve done for the last two albums. But it’s still an engrossing listen because they do these things so well. Gira sounds like a fucking preacher, like he’s going to bring Jesus down from the skies himself, and the production, as we’ve come to expect, is masterful. Godlike. A complete clinic on how to produce a rock album like this. The sounds are spacious and deep, the drums are clear, loose, live, and absolutely crushing when need be, and overall the sound is crisp and clear while still sounding entirely authentic.
That still doesn’t save the next track, though, the 25 minute “Cloud of Unknowing.” It’s not the length that bothers me, hell, I adore the 20 and 30 minute tracks on their previous efforts, it’s just that Swans doesn’t do anything with the length. Their signature heavy grooves don’t really build into anything exciting, and vocally, Gira is just bellowing out these long tones that aren’t particularly intense, visceral, spiritual, etc. (essentially not doing the things Gira’s been doing since the 80’s.) This is the sound I was afraid of: the sound of a band running low on ideas, and that extends to the first half of the next track, “The World Looks Red / The World Looks Black.” I love the detail in the groove, especially the shaker, but again, it doesn’t build into anything great and Gira is again, kind of boring vocally. But 7 minutes in however, the groove abruptly transitions into it’s second phase, which is much more urgent and hypnotic. Gira is more interesting, bringing more of a melody, albeit very minimal, to the proceedings, and some horns actually compliment the groove later on, providing some progression and build to the song. (Actually kind of reminding me of “Money is Flesh.” Oh how far this band has come.)
The rest of the album is similarly inconsistent. You have three neofolk songs complimenting the final two long form tracks, and ultimately, they’re underwhelming. “People Like Us” is ultra surreal lyrically, but kind of a drag vocally and musically. A trainwreck is the only way to describe “When Will I Return,” it’s the worst song I think I’ve ever heard from the band, and “Finally, Peace” feels tacked on compared to the behemoth of the title track that would’ve perfectly put a bow on this album and this era of the band.
But what a behemoth that title track is, as is the disc two opener “Frankie M.” The latter stands out for having a discernible chord progression and melody emerging out of a dense, crushing build. It’s an expert transition; a calm after the storm, and while the vocal melody got too repetitive on first listen, it’s grown on me a ton and is actually catchy. But the best track here is the title track, the 28 minute, multi faceted “The Glowing Man.” It opens with a really jittery, almost dance-like groove that transitions into a reprise of “Bring the Sun” from their last album, and it’s as crushing and hypnotic here as it was there. But the centerpiece of this song is this fast paced, sinister, krautrockian groove that marks one of the best things this band has ever put to tape. It’s unfailingly involving and brilliant; no matter how many minutes this groove goes on, your attention never wavers, it only heightens. That’s a skill this band has honed for years: the ability to take a simple idea and repeat over and again, but keep it entirely engrossing and never letting it go stale. It’s a skill that comes to fruition once again here in a transcendent way. Over top, Gira gives his most intense performance on the album, yelling, barking, and growling lyrics about Joseph moving his tongue in his neck, cutting his arm, flying, etc. It’s weird, but this whole sequence’s combination of badassery, danceability, mad man level strangeness, darkness, bliss, spirituality, and groove is a mixture that has made this period in the band’s career its best.
If only the rest of the album was that great. Their last two efforts were jaw dropping, next level great from start to finish, while the third and final installment in this era certainly has those moments, but they are interspersed among some pretty underwhelming material. It’s good that Gira has chosen to cut it off at this point in the band’s career though, as at some parts on this album it becomes clear that they have no where else to take this sound, and as a result seem to running low on inspiration / ideas. But I can’t lie to myself, as “The Glowing Man” is still a great piece of work.
Standout Tracks: “Frankie M” “The Glowing Man”