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BY KYLE WEINSTEIN Elegant and cruel, Swans are beautiful birds with very ugly temperaments. That duality is the reason Swans maestro, visionary, and lead guitarist/singer/songwriter Michael Gira chose them for the namesake of his band, an ongoing art-rock concern that has been trafficking in bliss and dissonance to great acclaim since 1982. Built from the wreckage of New York No Wave scenesters Circus Mort by Gira and Jonathan Kane, Swans quickly established themselves as the most ferocious act in town, and considering which town that was, that pretty much meant the world. Their early sound was a pulverizing hellscape of metallic, steam-powered percussion, warped tape loops, guttural basses (yes, plural), screeching curtains of guitar, and Gira’s drill sergeant vocals.
Since then, the band have undergone perpetual metamorphosis fueled by the coming and going of members like Sue Hanel, who was responsible for their early guitar sound, but disappeared off the face of the earth in the mid-’80s; Thurston Moore, who played one of the basses in ’82; and Jarboe, Gira’s lover during the band’s most sonically variant stages as they shifted from industrial to apocalyptic new wave to post-rock and dark ambient – from ’84 through Swans’ ’97 breakup. That’s not to mention veterans like guitarist Norman Westberg, lap steel guitarist Kristof Hahn, and drummer Phil Puleo.
The general arc of the band’s existence runs in the direction of increasing musical complexity as successive albums become more orchestral and divine. Regarded by many fans as the band’s magnum opus, or at least one of their magnum opi, 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind was the last studio album Swans recorded before Gira, along with Hahn, went off to form the ethereal folk project, Angels of Light, where he would work with future Swans members Phil Puleo (drums) and Thor Harris (miscellaneous). Much of the Angels’ sound was carried over to the next incarnation of Swans, beginning with 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky and concluding with 2016’s The Glowing Man. During that period, each successive album built on the motifs that preceded it.
Last year, Swans released Leaving Meaning which pushed further into folk territory while maintaining Swans’ brand of orchestral soundscaping. The album’s personnel include all of the last iteration’s members, as well as some new and old faces, including Ben Frost, Jeremy Barnes (Neutral Milk Hotel, Beirut), Larry Mullins (mid-late-’90s Swans, Iggy Pop, The Residents, etc. ad damn near infinitum), and improvisational ambient jazz trio The Necks to name a few.
When the album was announced, there was a preorder package I took advantage of that included a CD of Gira’s acoustic embryo of the album to come, a hand-written track list with his cryptic doodles, and a t-shirt. My pre order arrived in the mail on October 19th, six days before the release. While I was admittedly underwhelmed during my first listen, Leaving Meaning, like any Swans album with the exception of the failed Burning World, gets better with each listen, and I don’t know what number listen I’m on now, but here’s my take thus far.
As Gira is a musician who never discards old ideas, most of the album is nothing new for the avid Swans listener. He even recycles “Amnesia” from 1992’s Love of Life and reworks the song into something unrecognizable on Leaving Meaning. Gira is painting a familiar picture with an updated palate; it almost sounds like Angels of Light playing Swans. He mentioned in an interview last year that “regrettably, [Angels of Light] never really made much of a dent on the public consciousness,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if Leaving Meaning is Gira’s attempt to revive the Angels of Light concept by feeding it to Swans. Judging by some of the tracks on the new record, I think this could work. The two tracks I find most noteworthy are “Sunfucker” and “What is This?” “Sunfucker” is a droning chamber freak-folk mantra that gives way to the arm-flailing, mind-numbingly repetitive art-rock reminiscent of albums like The Seer (2012) and To Be Kind (2014) – and I mean this in the best way possible. “What is This?” – also the title of the acoustic album from the preorder package – is the most uplifting song ever put out by the band, in a similar vein to the final section of “A Piece of the Sky” from The Seer. “What is This?” is the summit of hope that stands farthest from the harsh sounds that characterized early Swans, and the contrast between these two worlds showcases the enormous artistic scope of the band. What is most exciting is that the tour, which has been pushed back to next year, will consist of largely improvisational sets that will include material that hasn’t even been worked out yet. In this light, Leaving Meaning is but a glimpse into the future of the ever-unfolding tapestry that is Swans. — KYLE WEINSTEIN