Michael Gira, Porgy & Bess, Vienna, 21 November 2008

There seems to be an occasional series of concert reviews on this blog — see Leonard Cohen, Whitehouse and Einstürzende Neubauten — that mostly consist of Epiphanies-style reminiscences of my first awareness of the artist in question. This, though, is the one I’ve been waiting to write — how I fell in love with Swans, the most important group of my life.

I recall the time very well. I was at Sussex University in 1987, casting around for new music to love. I had outgrown the obsessions with Gary Numan and Pink Floyd that marked my teenage years, had taken quite happily to the subdued acoustic muse of Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Vega, but was undoubtedly in need of something more acute. Every week I would scour the pages of the NME — still then my main source of music news, although not for much longer — in search of wisdom and enlightenment. One week I read a review of Swans’ Children of God that was to change my life, although I didn’t know it at the time. I can’t remember who penned it, but this is how it concluded: “And it’s ugly, and it’s difficult, and it’s long and sometimes wearying, and peculiarly beautiful, and utterly essential.” Well, that was it for me. I had never heard a note of this music, had no great history of liking this kind of thing, but when I saw that Swans (not The Swans, as I quickly learned) were playing in Brighton soon, I bought a ticket straight away. I got the album the day after the concert, and I was hooked for life.

Over the next few years, I saw Swans live a few more times (at the Zap Club on the seafront, and in London at the Town & Country Club and the now defunct Kilburn National Ballroom), and bought each new record as it came out, enthralled by the beauty and power inherent in this music. The real turning point, however, came when I wrote a fan letter to the address printed on the cover of 1991’s White Light From The Mouth of Infinity. I expected to hear back, if at all, from some kind of management flunkey; what I certainly didn’t expect was to receive a long and detailed reply from singer and keyboard player Jarboe herself. This kindness and generosity continued over many years in her correspondence with me; in those pre-email days it was a genuine thrill when a letter postmarked Atlanta dropped through my letterbox.

The apex of my association with Swans came in 1997 when Michael Gira asked me to be the merchandise seller on their farewell tour of Europe. As one might imagine, this was an offer I mulled over for perhaps 1.5 seconds before accepting. It was the experience of a lifetime, with 30-odd concerts over six weeks in such widespread countries as France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria (yes, the Szene Wien), Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Slovenia, with the last ever Swans concert taking place in my then home town of London on 15 March 1997, in the rather dingy surroundings of the now defunct LA2. Out there somewhere, there’s a recording of that night in which Gira makes a between-songs announcement thanking me for my work on the tour. I don’t have a copy myself, so please get in touch if you do. Rather mind-bogglingly, those words were the last he ever spoke (as opposed to sang) from the stage as a member of Swans.

I have a tour-bus load of memories of those six weeks, the good, the bad and the ugly, but if it’s all the same to you I’m going to keep them to myself (with the exception of this rather facetious letter which I wrote to The Wire last year). I will say that it was by some measure the hardest work I’ve ever done; this was not a matter of a few T-shirts. There were shirts, books, CDs, records, tapes, badges, stickers and wooden boxes, all of which had to be loaded in and out, sold and accounted for in any number of currencies (no euros then!). I’m well aware, though, that I was slumming it compared to the Herculean nightly efforts of the band and the rest of the road crew. And if anyone reading this bought anything from the merch table on Swans’ last European tour, I hope you were happy with what you bought.

Fast forward eleven years and I’m at Porgy & Bess for a solo concert by Michael Gira. This form represents a distillation and finessing of everything I ever loved about Swans: the brimming rage, the barely controlled power and the passionate intensity. The lyrics, as ever, are extraordinary: visionary, convulsive flashes of elemental forces, drenched in deep colours hewn from the strings and wood of Gira’s guitar. And when he plays my favourite Swans song, the overwhelmingly bleak and nihilistic “God Damn The Sun,” as the encore, I think… well, at the very least, I’m in the right place tonight.

Michael Gira: Songs for a Dog

An odd release, this – a mish-mash of previously released and unreleased material, it nevertheless provide a useful introduction to one side of Michael Gira’s post-Swans work.

Half of the ten songs are taken from I Am Singing to You From My Room, a solo CD originally released in a limited edition of 1000 through Gira’s website (a second edition is now available). Of the rest, two reappear from What We Did, Gira’s collaborative CD with Dan Matz of Windsor for the Derby, while one is an outtake from the sessions that produced New Mother, the first album by Gira’s principal post-Swans project, Angels of Light. Finally, there’s a solo version of one of Swans’ most harrowing songs, “God Damn The Sun”, and one completely new song, “Promise of Water”.

These songs represent Gira’s muse at its most stripped down and intimate, reflecting his urge to communicate through the simplest and purest of means. For the most part, they are shorn of the baroque intensity that characterises Gira’s work as Angels of Light. Although they consist of just a voice and an acoustic guitar, these are not folk songs. Wrought from dark, atavistic impulses, they proceed in a manner more akin to a sermon. Gira’s authoritative baritone moves effortlessly between the gentle, the reproachful and the accusatory, inhabiting the songs utterly and turning them into vehicles for spontaneous, unmediated expression. The lyrics are rapturous explosions of hallucinatory imagery, saturated in colours and sensations, while the guitar playing is a sinister, vertiginous thrumming. This is a truly potent mix; Gira’s take on songform is dazzling and unique.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 16, 2008)

Letter to The Wire, December 2007

As I was lucky enough to be a member of the road crew on the final Swans tour in 1997, I can vouch for the accuracy of Michael Gira’s description of the “stinky old Heavy Metal tour bus” that carted us around Europe (Invisible Jukebox, The Wire 286). Gira is also spot on regarding the lugubrious humour of Pan Sonic (or Panasonic, as they were then known). During a lengthy debate on the merits of ten-pin bowling, Mika Vainio responded to a criticism that the scoring system was unnecessarily complex with the doleful comment “It does not matter what is the score”.

Angels of Light: How I Loved You, Angels of Light: We Were Alive!, Michael Gira & Dan Matz: What We Did

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)

Swans: Various Failures, Angels of Light: New Mother, Body Lovers: Body Lovers

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)

Angels of Light: Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home

Michael Gira’s Angels of Light return with another collection of blasted folk-blues laments, at once as ancient as the Bible and as modern as tomorrow. After the first, hesitant steps of the debut Angels album, New Mother (1999) and the rapturous intensity of its follow-up How I Loved You (2001), this third album sounds both like and unlike its predecessors. There is the same careful, layered approach to the dynamics of songform, the same painterly use of a variety of acoustic instruments, and the same rich baritone voice singing lyrics shot through with convulsive, passionate imagery. What is new is a certain concision and a less self-consciously epic tone. The ambiguous, hesitantly reassuring message of the title points to absence and longing – an impression reinforced by the cover art, which foregoes Gira’s usual use of resonant symbols and icons in favour of stark photographs of bare domestic interiors.

The songs reflect this impression of acute emptiness. ‘Palisades’ maps the traces left by a death, or a disappearance; its melancholy vocals and dreamlike percussion are fatally undercut by the closing lines: “Reasons won’t come, and no-one will regret…that you’re gone”. The gentle, soft-focus eroticism of ‘Kosinsky’ similarly turns on a knife edge, with the “blonde hair that’s a river of translucent, liquid light” revealed at the end to belong to one who also has “the eyes of an animal”.

The album is full of such striking lyrical observations, but it is Gira’s remarkable voice that animates them, a thing of great beauty, tenderness and rage. Like the great English vocalist Peter Hammill, Gira shapes his songs through compelling shifts of vocal register, allowing the music to live and breathe around the voice. At times, the results are as noisy and driven as anything by Gira’s former band Swans. ‘All Souls’ Rising’ sounds like an Old Testament prophet celebrating the end of the world: “Leave the righteous ones to rise again and drink the light from enemies”. The song is powered by urgent riffing, foot-stomping tension and blasts of coruscating harmonica. The band barely pause for breath before launching into the ferocious ‘Nations’, in which Gira delivers an unusually biting socio-political tirade on behalf of the poor and destitute.

The Angels enrich the sonic palette with inspired touches of piano, violin, flute and pedal steel guitar. These transform songs like ‘The Family God’ and ‘What You Were’, both of which begin slowly and deliberately before opening out into wide, blissful panoramas. Between the two sits the hectic ‘Rose of Los Angeles’, an incantatory portrait of an old woman close to death that exposes the subject’s frailty while expressing anger at the powerlessness of her condition.

The Angels of Light transfix the listener by giving expression to the pulsating, symbolic energy they perceive to be at the heart of existence. But there is a tragic, darkly Romantic impulse to their creations that keeps the work oscillating between joy and despair. Gira plants one final twist at the end of the swinging, hypnotic ‘Sunset Park’. The song repeats the words “She brings some, she’ll bring some, she brings one, she’ll bring one” over and over, keeping the listener wondering what she will bring, until in the last seconds the answer comes with a quietly spoken, almost throwaway “Love”. It’s a touching, generous moment; and yet, as the rest of the album reminds us, love may be all you need, but it certainly isn’t all that there is.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 12, 2004)