Michael Gira is a myth-maker, acutely aware of the danger of ossification and constantly realigning his position to avoid it. When Swans emerged in the early 1980s, their grindingly repetitious sonic assault (once memorably described as “the sound of a man walking round in circles with his neck chained”) seemed like a strategy for obsessive rearrangement of a basic set of lyrical and musical permutations. The songs didn’t end; they stopped.
Gira eventually tired of this game and, coincident with the introduction of female vocalist/keyboardist Jarboe, began to introduce chilling acoustic elements into his songwriting on 1987’s essential Children of God LP. Over the next several years, Swans would refine and develop this approach in a series of albums that merged immense rhythmic power with an unearthly delicacy of acoustic instrumentation.These records – 1989’s The Burning World, 1991’s White Light from the Mouth of Infinity and 1992’s Love of Life – have long been deleted and are consequently much sought after. Various Failures is a double CD containing a generous selection of material from the period (complete reissues were ruled out, partly on economic grounds but also because Gira was content to let some of the songs disappear).
Listening again to this music, one is struck by how expansive it all sounds, the polar opposite of the early records’ savage inward spin. The loudest pieces here, such as ‘Will We Survive’ and the wonderfully titled ‘The Golden Boy that was Swallowed by the Sea’, are mesmerising dramas of layered orchestration, the massed guitars and drums perfectly framing Gira’s resonant vocals. These songs construct boundaries only to dissolve them: the spaces they occupy are vast and limitless. Elsewhere, Gira and Jarboe offer up unbearable intimacies of form and language, with the shimmering acoustic beauty of the music and the spectral sighs of Jarboe’s voice drawing the listener unmercifully into dense narratives of isolation and failure.
Gira has taken this loose, bluesy strain even further in his new song-based project, Angels of Light. These songs are less reliant on the apocalyptic visual imagery that underpinned Swans’ relentless, thrilling surge. Gira’s new voice is one of humble intimacy, the sound of a man shedding past burdens and discovering new ways of seeing. The musical palette is restrained and absorbing, with accordion and dulcimer adding colour and intimacy throughout.
The results are occasionally stunning; ‘Forever Yours’ and ‘Song For My Father’ in particular are among the most affecting things Gira has written. But there is a schematic quality to some of the other songs that strikes a jarring note. The lyrics are recited slowly and dolefully, with little melodic invention to lighten the mood. At their recent London concert, the Angels of Light shrugged off these limitations in the songs and transformed them into blinding, ecstatic convulsions of pure energy. The record, sadly, suffers from a listlessness that the warm and delicate arrangements are unable to dissipate.
If New Mother represents a slackening off from Swans’ intense emotional charge, Gira’s parallel Body Lovers/Body Haters project can be seen as a move in the opposite direction, a ratcheting of atmosphere and tension. These two CDs, representing the first phase in a projected three-album series, were originally issued separately in the USA and have now been brought together for European release.
Gira accurately describes this mainly instrumental music as ‘psycho-ambient’. While its abstract drifts and swirls share many of the formal properties of Ambient, they are determinedly inward-looking. Also, unlike much Ambient there is a restless intelligence at work here, ordering, shaping and defining. Distant, rumbling drones are picked apart by alien sounds, stately rhythms and sparing acoustic instrumentation. Occasional vocal interventions – a woman’s weeping, a baby’s screaming and a short, mournful song – all serve to heighten the sense of unease. Seriously effective, but not to be listened to with the lights off.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 6, 1999)