Posts Tagged ‘Young God Records’

Young God / Mute 25th October 2019

Christopher Nosnibor

On receipt of the new Swans album, I posted on Facebook that I was ‘too excited to download it.’ This wasn’t sarcasm or bathos. The arrival of a new Swans album is always an event of no small magnitude, and with a certain sense of duty to deliver a review of a band I’ve revered my entire adult life comes a certain weight of responsibility to do justice. Swans have always been more than merely a band, standing as a sonic entity with almost infinite capacity to overwhelm. And they haven’t lost that.

Their last three studio albums, The Seer (2012), To Be Kind (2014) and The Glowing Man (2016) redefined epic and over their course took extended improvisational forms to a logical conclusion, each with a duration in the region of two hours.

Given the tone of Michael Gira’s statement about the end of the iteration of the band who produced these albums, Leaving Meaning brings two substantial surprises, the first being that many of the personnel from the previous incarnation remain present, and the second being the speed of its arrival. Kristof Hahn remains in the latest lineup, which also features eternal mainstay Norman Westberg – arguably as integral to the band as Gira himself – albeit only on some tracks, and Thor Harris, Phil Puleo, and Christopher Pravdica. They’re joined by an immense cast of contributors including The Necks, Baby Dee, Anna and Maria von Hausswolff, and Larry Mullins.

Leaving Meaning sees Gira take a slightly different and more openly collaborative approach to the realisation of his ideas, and it’s a more concise record in comparison to its predecessors. It’s all relative, of course, but in context, ninety-three minutes is concise.

Because of its sheer enormity, Leaving Meaning isn’t an album it’s entirely appropriate to dissect, and it’s constructed in such a way that it is very much best experienced as an album rather than dipped into. That means its effect is optimal when experienced in a single session, but that also means – as was the case to an even greater extent with its predecessors – that it requires a significant commitment of time in a time-pressured world. But then, Swans’ music has the capacity to lift the listener out of time and into another zone altogether.

The longer tracks are considerably shorter than even most off the shorter tracks on the last three albums, with the twelve-minute ‘The Nub’ being the album’s longest track.

Intro segment ‘Hums’ is appropriately-titled, consisting of just two minutes of cascading, hovering drones interwoven for create a soft ambience. ‘The Hanging Man’ revisits the nagging, dizzying cyclical bass motifs of numerous extended workouts from the last trilogy, and grinds it out for ten minutes. Anyone who’s familiar with the band’s extensive back-catalogue will be aware that this style of composition harks back to the band’s dawning and has remained a trademark of theirs, as well as Gira’s solo work. Paired with Gira’s vocal delivery, which switches from a monotone drone to a maniacal holler of elongated vowels and jabbering ululations and monosyllabic barks and yelps, it’s vintage Swans that threatens a climax around the mid-point but saves the real intensity for the finish. It’s less about volume than plain, bludgeoning repetition.

‘Amnesia’ is not the same ‘Amnesia’ as on 1992’s Love of Life. Perhaps Gira’s forgotten about it. It is, however, a brooding acoustic-led folk song. At heart. One of the things that constitutes a significant point of departure on Leaving Meaning is the return to sparser structures: gone are the immense sustained crescendos and pulverising explosions of discordant noise. There’s an altogether more mellow feel about Leaving Meaning. That said, there are orchestral and choral surges which punctuate both here and elsewhere.

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‘Sunfucker’ is another classic Swans composition built around endless repetition, and with its backing vocal chants serves as an apocalyptic counterpart to ‘I Am the Sun’ from The Great Annihilator. Tapering off to drones in the mid-section, it suddenly explodes into a stomping glam bash. It’s bewildering, unexpected, everything all at once and probably the most daring and adventurous thing Swans have recorded in their entire career.

‘The Nub’ is gloomily funeral. Ethereal, haunting, but ultimately bleak in mood; ‘Some New Things’ is mantric, looping, hypnotic, while ‘My Phantom Limb’, one of the album’s standouts, has stronger echoes of Greed-era’s tortured pounding. It sits at odds with the rest of the album, but then so much of the album sits at odds with itself it feels right in a perverse way.

So what do we take from this? More or less what we’ve take from Swans over the last thirty years: with their ever-shifting parameters but constant core focus and the creative vision of Michael Gira always the driving force, Swans never cease to evolve, but never cease to be Swans, and are immediately identifiable as Swans, however far out they go.

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Leaving Meaning is the fifteenth studio album for SWANS, the follow up to 2016’s The Glowing Man, and is due for release by Mute / Young God Records (N America) on 25th October 2019. Leaving Meaning will be released on double vinyl in a brown chipboard sleeve, double CD in a brown chipboard digipack and digitally.

Written and produced by Michael Gira, the album features contributions from recent and former Swans, members of Angels of Light as well as Guest Artists Anna and Maria von Hausswolff, Ben Frost, The Necks, Baby Dee, and a Hawk and a Hacksaw,

Michael Gira explains, “Leaving Meaning is the first Swans album to be released since I dissolved the lineup of musicians that constituted Swans from 2010 – 2017. Swans is now comprised of a revolving cast of musicians, selected for both their musical and personal character, chosen according to what I intuit best suits the atmosphere in which I’d like to see the songs I’ve written presented. In collaboration with me, the musicians, through their personality, skill and taste, contribute greatly to the arrangement of the material. They’re all people whose work I admire and whose company I personally enjoy”.

Listen to the first track from the album, ‘It’s Coming It’s Real’ here:

In autumn, Michael Gira will be touring select cities on a solo tour with Norman Westberg. Swans will tour in the spring of 2020.

11 Oct – Skanu Mezs Festival – Riga, Latvia

13 Oct – Saint Petersburg, Russia

15 Oct – Moskva, Russia

18 Oct – Athina, Greece

19 Oct – Thessaloniki, Greece

23 Oct – Ljubljana, Slovenia

25 Oct – Bucharest, Romania

26 Oct – Cluj-napoca, Romania

28 Oct – Warsaw, Poland

29 Oct – Warsaw, Poland

31 Oct – Kyiv, Ukraine

1 Nov – Vilnius, Lithuania

2 Nov – Helsinki, Finland

Young God Records

It’s perhaps too much to convey the experience of hearing Soundtracks for the Blind for the first time on its release in 1996. Admittedly, hearing any Swans release for the first time was memorable – I was introduced in the late 80s via Children of God, which, aged 17, was unlike anything I had heard before. It was what one might call a pivotal moment. I was compelled to explore their back-catalogue, which yielded a succession of further pivotal moments, not east of all on the discovery of Cop.

For all its length, The Great Annihilator was pretty straightforward, and represented a continuation of the White Light / Love of Life albums. Just a year later, Soundtracks for the Blind was altogether different, and represented a new expansion on all levels. It was about three hours long, for a start. The third song was over a quarter of an hour long, and there were extensive instrumental passages that bordered on ambient. Elsewhere, reworkings of older songs, bent almost beyond recognition (‘YRP’ and ‘YRP 2’ emerging from ‘Your Property’ from 1984’s Cop), surfaced amidst the churning soundscapes drawn from the contents of the library of tape loops and found sounds gathered by Michael Gita over the band’s whole career. It felt like the culmination of a lifetime’s work. It felt fitting it should be Swans’ final studio album, and it seems appropriate that its remastered reissue should arrive when Gira has again called time on the band. Its arrival gives us cause to reflect on the cyclical nature of the band’s career, and the differences and similarities between their first unbroken span and their later incarnation, which closed with another uber epic in the form of The Glowing Man and followed by a live document (as Soundtracks was accompanied by the conclusive Swans are Dead, so The Glowing Man was accompanied by Deliquescence).

This is the first time Soundtracks has been released on vinyl, and naturally, its formatting and packaging is something else: as the press release and Young God website detail, ‘the vinyl package will consist of four LPs in jackets enclosed in a box with a poster, insert and download card. The box set will be a limited edition of 4,000 copies worldwide and once sold out will be followed later in 2018 by a gatefold LP version. The album will also be reissued on CD featuring a repackage of the original digipak for the 1996 Atavistic release plus a bonus disc of the contemporaneous Die Tür Ist Zu EP (a German language version of some of the material from Soundtracks that also includes unique material) recently released for the first time on vinyl in the USA for Record Store Day 2018. Outside of the USA, Die Tür Ist Zu EP will be released as a limited edition companion piece double vinyl set, also on 20th July’. Yes, as with the previous reissues, they’ve gone all put to render a truly definitive edition.

Listening to Soundtracks now, it seems that Gira, having declared the band spent in 1997, spent a long time cogitating over the directions and possibilities that this album presented, and took them as the starting point for the post-millennial iteration: it certainly shares more with this period than its predecessors, with exceptions like ‘The Yum Yab Killers’ which delivers the same kind of punch as ‘Mother/Father’ on The Great Annihilator (and recoded live, with somewhat muffled sound, it still seems a shade incongruous in its inclusion here, although Jarboe sounds so fucking fierce I’d not want to make to big a deal of it). We’re reminded, too, that Soundtracks emerged during a fairly prolific spell for Gira, and it’s perhaps inevitable that elements of other projects – namely the solo album Drainland and The Body Lovers / The Body Haters. ‘All Lined Up’ is a different version of ‘I See Them All Lined Up’ which featured on Drainland. It’s simultaneously more distorted and weirded-out, and more explosive, more driving, more… Swans.

Some of the rambling monologues are quite disturbing (with recordings of Gira’s father talking about his life and excerpts from FBI tapes, amongst other things), but then so is the musical accompaniment that provides the backdrop: ‘I Was a Prisoner Inside Your Skull’ and ‘How they Suffer’ make for uncomfortable listening.

There are some incredibly tender, raw, emotive moments: Gira’s voice, cracked and plaintive on ‘Animus’, as woodwind bursts around him from a hovering hush, is one of Swans’ most affecting moments. For a band whose back catalogue contains some of the most intense sonic brutality ever committed to tape, it’s quite a contrast, and perhaps all the more moving in context.

It’s a sprawling expanse of sound, and it isn’t entirely cohesive. Gira’s conception of sound as something malleable and his approach to dynamics would evolve immensely in the time away from Swans, and as such, Soundtracks is as much a signpost toward the next phase as a bookend to the one it belongs. At the time, it was almost too much to digest. On revisiting, the same holds true. The density of both sound and ideas, the sheer scale of the album, the fact that it condenses fifteen years into two and a half hours… of course it’s too much to bear. This was always the way with Swans: even their gentler albums are delivered with an intensity that transcends words. And this, of course, is the ultimate objective of music – to touch body and mind in ways that are beyond any form of articulation. Soundtracks for the Blind doesn’t simply touch those parts, but poke, prod, squeeze and stab at them.

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