Surrendering to powers greater than yourself is terrifying and ecstatic; once you do, you are opened to a whole universe of possibility, in all its enormity. With The Glowing Man, Swans and band leader Michael Gira have finally given full surrender to their musical impulses and released a powerful culmination of their career—and my album of the year. It is, to make a horrible pun, their swansong.
Announced as the last album of this incarnation of Swans, The Glowing Man feels in many ways like a climax to both their career and a musical trilogy, started with 2012’s The Seer, and continued with 2014’s Magnum Opus To Be Kind (TBK). Those two albums are behemoths of noise and feeling and reward the patient listener. The Glowing Man, somehow, adds something to their particular yin and yang, and gives a legitimate sense of resolution.
In contrast to those two efforts, The Glowing Man is, in many ways, a straightforward album. It follows a narratively tight ascent. Each track builds on the previous track in tension, and power. The hallmarks of this group’s sound are here: violent bone crunching loudness; typhoon dynamics of loud and quiet; monstrous song lengths; Gira’s shaman, by turns Buddhist, and evangelical psychosis; and overwhelming tension. However, there is, new to the mix, melody, and more conventional song structure. “Cloud of Forgetting” feels almost like a new experience in contrast to the overt atonality of the previous two records, with Christoph Hahn’s gentle, minor key lap steel announcing a storm.
This sense of melody and straightforward songwriting—for this group at least—is part of the musical resolution that defines the album: The Seer and To Be Kind each have this intense sense of struggle on the parts of Gira and his musicians. They’re fighting a battle for the meager souls of humanity; they are trying to justify how love can be such a powerful force in the face of such darkness. The Seer is spacious and decayed; To Be Kind is a struggle; but neither ever bow to that enormity.
The sense of resolution is also a measure of acceptance and surrender. Even in “Cloud of Forgetting,” when Gira announces screams “surrender,” it feels like an acknowledgment of a force greater than man, that he is reconciling himself too. As the record progresses, from the almost jazz-like “Cloud of Unknowing,” to the zen “The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black,” and onward, there is a sense of reconciliation with existence. However, this is still a narrative, so each track builds to something that feels like a storm on the horizon.
The Seer and To Be Kind each have this intense sense of struggle on the parts of Gira and his musicians. They’re fighting a battle for the meager souls of humanity; they are trying to justify how love can be such a powerful force in the face of such darkness.
Then the title track comes, and it is the apocalypse itself—one of the loudest, most intense, and violently cathartic songs I’ve listened to, and absolutely justifies its 28-minute run time. More than that, it explicitly recalls moments from the previous two records, taking the opening of “Bring the Sun” from TBK and expanding that monstrous bomb-shell chord from a minute, to four minutes, before dropping into a hook so powerful I dare you to stand still listening to it. It grabs your skull and injects you with power. Then comes that final, on the nose “Finally, peace,” and it all clicks.
It is a powerful catharsis, and when listened to in the context of the trilogy, becomes an even more profound experience. I love that stuff. Having three enormous records—each two hours—be challenging and epic, but self-contained; and then having a record that stands on its own and ties up loose threads. It’s honestly hard to talk about, because the music is not conscious. It sits deep somewhere in the dark where the id plays. And, rarely enough, the two hours aren’t long, they’re justified; and that’s difficult for me to say; but Swans does it. They manage to make me want to listen to a two-hour record repeatedly: a rare feat. And so this is my album of the year, a swansong. Listen to it.
Until I Surrender,
14,000 out of 10,000 Rawckus Kung Fu Throwing Stars
P.S. I have left out my thoughts on Michael Gira’s alleged Sexual Assault of Larkin Grimm intentionally. For my thoughts, visit eric-koenig.com.