When Michael Gira disbanded Swans in 1997, his main reason was that the weight of expectation surrounding the group’s name had become a liability. Since 1982, Swans had marshalled the transformative qualities of sound in a way that was, and remains, unparalleled in rock. The lurching Industrial rhythms of their earliest work were gradually sloughed off in favour of visionary, crescendo-laden sunbursts. Their last album, Soundtracks For The Blind, mixed intense balladry with spoken word tape loops and Ambient textures to ecstatic effect.
Since then, Gira has further refined his exploration into the redemptive powers of the song with the Angels of Light. (The parallel Body Lovers project, of which the first part of a promised trilogy has so far appeared, continues the journey into the realms of the psycho-Ambient.) How I Loved You, the second Angels of Light album, has recently been complemented by the release of a limited (750) edition live CD, We Were Alive!, available only through Gira’s website.
Gira is nothing if not a soul singer, and the ten songs comprising How I Loved You are saturated with pure, heartfelt emotion. The voice is bitter, regretful and yearning, as Gira maps out vast territories of love and loss. While some of Swans’ visceral attack may have been purged, there is certainly no let-up in the masterful play of tension and release on which these songs turn. The acoustic guitar is at the forefront, augmented by breathy accordion, wisps of pedal steel and firmly insistent percussion.
‘Evangeline’ is how Leonard Cohen should sound these days, if his once rich muse hadn’t been terminally derailed by clodhopping irony and an inexplicable liking for cheesy synthesised arrangements. Gira assumes the role of romantic troubadour with ease, his closely miked vocals suffused with a graceful eroticism. ‘My True Body’ is much darker. Gira comes on like an old time preacher, while the song is driven along by thunderous drumming.
The Angels really take flight, however, on the centrepiece ‘New City In The Future’ and the closing ‘Two Women’. Both last over ten minutes, and both are flawless blends of rousing chord progressions and achingly vivid melodic intensity. Multitracked guitars reverberate endlessly around Gira’s passionate incantations of desire and possession.
The live album captures the Angels at a 2001 concert in Toronto. The sound quality is not perfect, but the immense power of the ensemble is well in evidence, as are the sublime touches of glockenspiel and accordion that add light and shade everywhere. Five new songs are aired, including the exceptional ‘All Souls Rising’, and in deference to history the concert ends with emotive readings of two of Swans’ finest songs, ‘God Damn The Sun’ and ‘Failure’. The CD is nicely packaged in a clear plastic wallet with a printed envelope and personalised artwork.
What We Did is a more intimate affair, a collaboration between Gira and Dan Matz of Windsor For The Derby (who supported Swans on tour in 1997). These songs edge towards the mythic Americana of the Band and Gram Parsons. Gira and Matz alternate lead vocals, and the gently played acoustic guitar patterns are strengthened by atmospheric piano and harmonica. The pairing results in an album that quietly seduces the listener with its warmth and understated sensitivity.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 11, 2003)