There are some kinds of music that are just meant to be played loud. Be it metal, or techno, or even shoegaze, there are genres that find their power in pulverising the listener into a trance-like state, and no band embodies this ethos more than Swans. Since Michael Gira revived the experimental rock band for their 2010 album My Father Will Guide up a Rope to the Sky, the band has expanded the definition of what noise-rock can be, creating two masterful, gruelling albums of punishing, but transcendent noise in The Seer and To Be Kind. Along with those two records, The Glowing Man forms something of a finale to a trilogy (especially since Gira says this is the last album this incarnation of the band will create), and continues what made those albums work so well, for better or for worse.
Both The Seer and To Be Kind has running times of around 2 hours, a tradition The Glowing Man continues. However, whilst those records used their outsized lengths to push the boundaries of tension and release, The Glowing Man feels like it’s long because Gira thought it had to be. Where To Be Kind introduced new textures and structures into the band’s palette, The Glowing Man feels like something of a retread, and by extension, somewhat perfunctory for a band that has always thrived on constant evolution.
Even if they don’t necessarily explore much new ground, the majority of the tracks on The Glowing Man are excellent. The album doesn’t really feel like it starts for about 20 minutes, because whilst the opening track – Cloud of Forgetting – features a tense, grinding build-up, it’s electronica-indebted structure prevents it from containing any sort of cathartic release. The second track – Cloud of Unknowing – is much stronger, and sounds like it could have come straight off The Seer. Over the first 14 minutes, angular guitars and pounding drums slowly rise and fall, before finding a crescendo at the 15 minute mark, which ends just before the listener can find satisfaction. The remaining 10 minutes of the track alternate between these modes, teasing out the release to breaking point. It’s a stunning display of the power Swans’ music can hold.
Not all of the tracks manage such success, though. The first 10 minutes of Frankie M push the limits of tension, and begin to feel quite aimless, although a sequence of brisk, cymbal-heavy percussion in the second half of the song rescues it somewhat. However, the album’s nadir is When Will I Return. Over acoustic chords and atonal e-bow feedback, Gira’s wife Jennifer recounts a harrowing experience with sexual assault. The track is brooding and uncomfortable, as intended, but its inclusion feels questionable, in light of the accusations levelled against Gira this year by Larkin Grimm (he is accused of sexually assaulting her). The track itself is successful, but its context leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth, and feels somewhat exploitative as a result.
In spite of not reinventing the wheel, The Glowing Man is still a Swans album, and is still a joy to listen to. However, it is the first of their recent records in which the 2 hour running time feels like a stretch, and the pacing flaws make the music’s construction all the more apparent. It’s still an excellent album in its own right, but one can’t help but wish that Gira and crew could have come up with something a little more inventive for the final album in their “trilogy”.