Friday, June 17, 2016

Swans - The Glowing Man Review

In the two years since To Be Kind released to critical acclaim, and my scathing review, my musical taste has grown considerably. Ironically enough, Swans had a large part in that. Think of it as a tour of me coming to grips with something I despised. In that time, I visited their vast discography, seeing what a successful two-hour album could achieve in the phenomenal Soundtracks For The Blind. While it revealed facets of To Be Kind I was wrong about, it further instilled some beliefs I held about why their 2014 album was a poor endeavor. Much of that centered around a more visceral, organic experience on their 1998 opus, incorporating elements of various genres, including the left field ‘Volcano,’ not being afraid to experiment within Rock, even going so far as to add field recordings, something that became prominent in Post-Rock at the time. Third wave Swans, as fans have called it, has almost nothing of the sort, relying on rituals spelled out on 2012’s The Seer, repeating them with little originality. The Glowing Man, the supposed final album in this trilogy, is expectedly more of the same. In fact, the key difference between this and To Be Kind is myself and where I’ve come musically, despite the main concerns still ringing true.

While one could make an argument that in 2014 my opinions on Swans were invalid, thanks to maturity, a growing library, and an appreciation of their older work, that validity has certainly diminished. I do not hate Swans. The acclaim for the third wave is lessened significantly for the same reasons many artists fail to excel in my book; repetition and a safe practice of familiarity in structuring. Frontman Michael Gira, in a press release on The Glowing Man, even went so far as to gloat about the three 20+ minute songs here as if they were created entirely for that purpose, which, in all likelihood, they were. Take a look at To Be Kind and The Seer and see how strikingly similar they all stack up, with the duration of all three albums falling within three minutes of each other. This was no longer a band making epics that veered onto roads less traveled, it was a group inflating tedium until they achieved the title of epic by brute force. The plan was robotic in nature. You got the sense every element was doubled on To Be Kind for the sake of it, and while that’s certainly found in places on The Glowing Man, thankfully there’s versatility within the dark corners.

An odd comparison to make, a few pieces of The Glowing Man’s longer proses actually feel similar to freeform Jazz. Rather than throwing an onslaught of noise at the listener, a good chunk of ‘Cloud Of Unknowing’ and ‘The World Looks Red / The World Looks Black’ deal in the minute details of session work, with layered percussion and acoustics, creating an approach that feels entirely natural. This makes the inevitable crescendo many Swans songs encounter more friendly, as they’re not done so obviously by routine but by sensations. Now, this doesn’t apply to ‘Frankie M.’ or ‘The Glowing Man’ which, for the large part, return to the predictable build-ups found on To Be Kind, something so exaggeratedly overdone that it becomes tiresome. While it would get old in its own right, the fact that there’s a track here, ‘Cloud Of Forgetting,’ the intro, that features a single persistent build-up throughout its 12-minutes is refreshing, to say the least. Piece after piece, giving each previous instrument enough time to breathe, is just the thing Glowing Man needed to get going on the right foot. As far as the long tracks go, this is an easy choice for best one, as it executes Swans’ tactics gracefully, with purpose, vision, and concinnity.

Reading into that, this also implies I feel the shorter songs are superior, which, at least for two of the three, they are. Third wave Swans has always worked in excess, which is why the more formal tracks are more rewarding; they strip the surplus, polish what works best, and don't obsess over the same emotional tugs. 'When Will I Return?' features Gira's wife Jennifer coming to grips with a traumatic moment in her life. Archetypal Swans lyrics spun through a web of realism, sung by someone who came face to face with it makes the revealing track more powerful than any of the daunting set-pieces found elsewhere. And better yet, 'When Will I Return?' doesn't go without those, dedicating the second half to an awakening, as Jennifer chants "oh I'm alive!" around intense production not unlike something you'd hear on their 1991 release, White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity. Lastly, if Gira commits to his word, 'Finally, Peace.' stands to be the end in Swans' discography, the small, but noticeable period symbolizing that belief. And thankfully, it's a doozy, embellishing much of Gira's past three decades into a perfect six minutes.

Unfortunate to say those two tracks compose just a fraction of The Glowing Man. And while flashes of ingenuity spark up, typically hidden amongst the massive brush, like the percussion tantrum midway through the title track or the church bells ringing toll after an anarchistic build-up in 'Cloud Of Unknowing,' The Glowing Man contains greatness amongst a few handfuls of fat. There's equal amounts of lulls though, like the bulk of 'Frankie M.' that brings manufactured passion to the forefront, adding nothing we haven't heard before from the group, or Gira's session work gone wrong towards the beginning of the title track, nonsensically spouting "no, no, no, yes, no, no, yes" relentlessly for no rhyme or reason. The Glowing Man really can be seen as a mixed bag, one that teeters expectedly close to The Seer and To Be Kind despite bringing in moments, albeit small and spread thin, that show signs of wit and gumption. As a final send-off to the group's magnificent career, it seems The Glowing Man has been effectively drained of light. Who knows, if we're to take history into account, he may come back a burning flame in a few years. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I'm not sure how much confidence I can place in your review, especially when you say that you originally gave To Be Kind an initially poor review before changing your mind some time later.

    Also, "third wave" swans as you called it wasn't three albums, it was four. Go listen to My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky.

  3. I changed my mind later? What do you mean? But yeah, I understand people not putting confidence in my Swans opinions, that's fine.

    And that is true. I'm aware of the album, it just seems to be a smaller endeavor that doesn't fully fit with the other three. But you are right, I'll be getting around to that eventually.

    1. When I mentioned that you "changed your mind" later I had misread your review initially. Upon rereading I can see that you only had a slightly different perspective on it later.

      The main problem that I have with the review though is it seems like the bulk of your criticisms come from what you think Gira intended or what he was 'trying to do', as opposed to just looking at the work itself.
      (For example, "gloat about the three 20+ minute songs here as if they were created entirely for that purpose, which, in all likelihood, they were.")
      I'm just not understanding what makes you think Gira is making long compositions just for the sake of them being long.

      Sorry if it sounds like I'm taking potshots at random aspects of the review, its just a little hard to come up with a complete response off the cuff.

    2. No, it's completely fine, and I totally get where you're coming from. It does seem like much of my criticisms aren't full-proof, like the length thing. That was merely a comment, and while it did effect my score, it's really a personal thing that I obviously wouldn't be able to prove. There are other reasons, that didn't make my review, on why I gave it that score. A lot of that is it's similarities to To Be Kind, at least as far as I see it, and especially in comparison to what I'm hearing of their work in the 90's and how different those were.

      But believe me, out of almost every artist I review Swans is probably the least in terms of my opinion meaning something haha. I still haven't listened to the bulk of their discography, jumping into To Be Kind blind was a dumb idea, and at the time, and still now, I have little grasp as to the genres they're influenced by, at least compared to ones I know more about. I just like reviewing them cause they intrigue me, and I'll always respect that.