Swans: An Art-Rock Ensemble’s Raw Return to Form

Swans: “Eden Prison” (My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The SkyYoung God, 9/27/10)

Swans: “Eden Prison”

Swans: My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky
Swans: My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

With Swans’ first studio album in 14 years, songwriter Michael Gira has sparked the incendiary fires of his best-known group for another push at the fertile boundaries of music. Having made a journey from raw, ritualistic purgation in the early 1980s, to carefully crafted soundscapes in the late ’90s, the newest incarnation of the Swans swaggers with refined violence and drags the listener into its beautiful and sonorous depths.

Declaring the Swans dead in 1997, Gira went on to acoustic explorations, both solo and with an ensemble under the name The Angels of Light, allowing him to work through his ideas on a more subtle level. The words, his presence, and the subtle nuances of sound came to the fore, no longer consumed by the notoriety surrounding the identity of the Swans. As the Angels of Light progressed, some of the old fire started to peek out again; Gira began returning to the innate energy that had fueled the Swans.

His 2010 solo release, I Am Not Insane, built on this feeling and also helped fund the reality of a new Swans record and tour. The limited-edition CDs, complete with hand-printed packages, sold out in two weeks. “I had a couple of hundred prepared three days before recording the new album,” Gira says. “I wasn’t prepared for them to go so fast.” To make up for the shortage, he went into overtime with his wife and daughter getting everything ready to send out.

“Playing live is about rediscovering the song and getting back to that place where the people are playing, the sound starts swirling.”

Adorning select copies of I Am Not Insane with a golden swirl, Gira’s use of the ancient symbol for the labyrinth provides a poignant reflection for the Swans and for Gira himself. As he noted in his announcement, this is no reunion jag. Like the symbol of the labyrinth, this is a passage through an altered circle — Dante’s inferno — the progress of an artist having gone through hell and coming back out the devil’s mouth.

“This is the most vulnerable I’ve felt in years,” he says. “We’ve rehearsed very hard to pull this off. When you put together a new band, it has to become a band, and that takes time.” Many of the new songs that appear on I Am Not Insane are performed with just Gira’s voice and guitar, and in order to get the new Swans roster up to speed, he sent each of the musicians a copy and allowed them to start experimenting with their own additions. Though Gira has become something of a cult brand, it was important to him that this album represented the individual talents of the players.

To achieve this, Gira assembled hardened veterans of sonic exploration, reaching a realization of the possibilities that earlier Swans albums slyly suggested. Thor Harris, credited with drums, percussion, vibes, dulcimer, curios, and keys, is an accomplished carpenter, musician, and craftsman in his own right. Bill Rieflin was an integral part of Ministry and Revolting Cocks and is currently drumming for REM, as well as working on projects with guitarist Robert Fripp. Norman Westberg, Christoph Hahn, Devendra Banhart, Phil Puleo, Chris Pravdica, and “Grasshopper” of Mercury Rev — each helps this album come together as collective artistry.

My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, the group’s raw return, was recorded with Jason LaFarge at Seizures Palace. In a stripped-down room of concrete walls and an unfinished ceiling, the band played 12 hours straight for most of the songs. It used the stone walls and high ceilings to accentuate overtones and harmonics. “There was no separation,” Gira says. “We recorded all of us in the room playing. It’s overwhelming to play it that way. It takes a lot of overdubbing to get back to the intensity of the room.”

Indeed, Gira’s expressive music explores the physical experience of sound itself. Both in and out of the studio, he addresses the physicality of sound, creating waves of powerful music.

On tour, this process becomes a more immediate exchange. “I don’t try to recreate what I do in the studio when I play live,” Gira says. “Playing live is about rediscovering the song and getting back to that place where the people are playing, the sound starts swirling — sometimes it takes whole tours to get to that point.”

“No Words/No Thoughts” introduces the album with a gentle percussion piece that builds in violent orchestration of squealing buzz saws. By the time Gira’s vocals come in, the listener’s brain has been scrapped, becoming a sonic Charon leading a journey across the river Lethe. Forget what came before; the Swans walk on.

The album moves through a carefully balanced mix of musical discordance and delicate harmonic play. Gira’s respect for artists like Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan allows him to take this physical material into a place of intricacy. His vocals walk through landscapes of sound, pursued by occasional melodies and orchestral compositions.

As a songwriter, Gira builds from his experiences without nostalgia. Something as commonplace as visiting music websites becomes the beautiful, eerie duet between Banhart and his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter on “You Fucking People Make Me Sick.” “Jim” is built from his relationship with JG Thirwell of Foetus, Steroid Maximus, and Wiseblood, but the friendship is merely a source for sauntering rhythms and oblique wordplay.

Along with the official release, Gira created an instrumental mix of the album to explore the longer sonic elements that he’d wanted to put on the album. He describes the process as a “matter of layering bricks; it takes a long time, and grows organically — rushes of inspiration — but most of it is like hacking away with an ice pick.”

Of course, Gira remains busy with his 20-year-old label, Young God Records, which has issued releases by James Blackshaw, Fire on Fire, Lisa Germano, and Akron/Family in recent years. Running the label has allowed him to foster a number of young careers, but it also has fostered Gira’s artistic growth. And with My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, Gira and Swans emerge as elemental and potent from 13 years in the grave. Plans for the next album are already fomenting in Gira’s creative consciousness, and we can look forward to further visions of grace and power.

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