Swans gave us 2014's best album. Does The Glowing Man shine just as bright?Young God Records, 2016
8.2 / 10
Welcome to another Earbuddy Roundtable Review. To explain, Earbuddy assembles three or more writers to discuss a new album with each writer giving his/her thoughts on the release and their own personal score. Then an average score is determined for the album overall. For our latest Roundtable, Earbuddy writers Tom Alexander, JEDowney, NK, and Aaron Kolarcik will be reviewing Swans’ The Glowing Man.
2014 was a year where most of the Earbuddy staff was divided by two albums — Sun Kil Moon’s Benji and Swans’ To Be Kind. To Be Kind took the top honor as album of the year and still holds up as a complex, bold listen. You pretty much have to make time for To Be Kind if you want to explore it once again, but it pays off in dividends. No surprise then that the Earbuddy staff would get together for a Roundtable review of Swans’ latest LONG, long-player The Glowing Man, which marks the end in a trilogy beginning with The Seer and followed by To Be Kind. Swans’ leader Michael Gira has said this album will be the end of this current incarnation of Swans, which I guess means he’ll revive it again in the future but with new members and possibly a different sound. The current Swans incarnation is that of a progressive rock band, creating these gigantic compositions with a multitude of instruments and sometimes vague vocals. It raises eyebrows, forces you to draw your own conclusions, and gives you meditative atmospheres to get lost within. Does The Glowing Man hold a candle to 2014’s To Be Kind? That is the question, and these are the answers from Earbuddy’s staff.
The worst thing about The Glowing Man is that it’s not To Be Kind or The Seer. Within the context of this trilogy, this album might be the weakest. But, within this trilogy, the bars are raised so high that this qualifier doesn’t mean that The Glowing Man is weak at all. In a lot of ways, these last three albums feel a lot like Bowie’s Berlin trilogy. The Seer / Low was the aggressive tonal shift, both captivating in how good the songs are, but nearly preposterous in its audacity. To Be Kind / “Heroes” was the refinement of the first entry, where some new ground is covered, but largely it’s the same ideas made better. Now, with The Glowing Man / Lodger, we have Swans and Bowie both mining that sonic territory for more material, but consciously coming up with less. In that way, The Glowing Man definitely feels like the end of an era.
The choices made here feel more self-conscious than before. The Seer and To Be Kind almost felt like they weren’t written at all, but rather, unearthed out of some crypt, perhaps buried by a doomsday cult or a Lovecraftian horror. The Glowing Man, however, feels written and measured. This distinction matters. The last two albums felt instinctual, like they just sprang out of the band fully formed. When Gira shouted in To Be Kind‘s epic “Bring the Sun”, it didn’t feel like a choice. The primitive, chugging rhythm of “Mother of the World” didn’t feel like a choice. It was the only way that song could have ever existed. To compare with The Glowing Man, songs like “When Will I Return” and “The World Looks Red / The World Looks Black” feel picked over. The most unnerving thing about Swans — the sense that they were tapping into something dark, terrible, and inhuman — is gone, leaving only good, beefy prog-rock behind.
Tom Alexander’s Score: 8.0
Their worst since Father
But another masterpiece
Agh this be too good
JEDowney’s Score: 9.0
Wow, so To Be Kind was a monster of an album, clocking in at 2 hours and 2 minutes. The Glowing Man misses that length by three minutes but manages to feel longer. The reason for this is because The Glowing Man is essentially more about the slow build. The songs on The Glowing Man grow and grow like a small flame eventually overtaking a two-story house. No one is able to put the flame out; it swarms its surroundings and traps everything inside. There were times while listening to The Glowing Man where I felt trapped, lost in a dark abyss of sound with nothing to ever grab onto. Michael Gira’s vocals are there, but they’re not as easy to grab onto as with To Be Kind. For The Glowing Man, Gira does a lot of drawn out vocal moans or chants, giving this album an almost spiritual context. Diehard Swans fans will argue, of course, that this album IS a spiritual experience. If To Be Kind was (as I theorized) about what it is to be human (mankind), then The Glowing Man seemingly explores an afterlife or an existence beyond a physical state.
A song that feels out of place but also in perfect place is “When Will I Return”, sung by Gira’s spouse Jennifer about her experience being assaulted and her desperate struggle to hold onto her life while being attacked. Her ending chorus of “I’m alive,” in tandem with Michael Gira’s dark moaning sounds like she’s being reborn or finding new strength from this terrifying event. This is followed by the album’s longest song (the title track), which clocks in over 28 minutes — an album length for many bands. As I said earlier, the whole album cherishes the slow build. Subtle nuances entering as time ticks before Gira finally sings, “He’s a real go getter,” and continuing to describe this unnamed “he” as this absolutely zombie like vocal effect echoes in the background. It’s intriguing and unnerving but so…Swans that no other band could pull it off. So who is this glowing man? God? Perhaps. Exploring one song on this album — the instrumentation and the lyrical context — could be an entire essay. It’s dark, transformative, but also very calming — a soft glow that attracts its listeners like insects. It’s an easy choice; go toward the light.
NK’s Score: 8.8
Clocking in at just under two hours, the new Swans album demands a lot from audiences, and delivers another tense, but sparse experience back to them. Where To Be Kind saw Michael Gira and crew as necromancers summoning up colossal, otherworldly beasts of songs – “She Loves Us” and “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture” – The Glowing Man shows Swans more as landscape painters, rendering lonely deserts, wide skies, and swirling oceans for our listening terror. This change of pace in Swans music comes from two main things: track length, and pacing.
Firstly, there are only 8 tracks on The Glowing Man and on average these are some of the longest tracks Swans have ever put together: five of the eight are over ten minutes and three of them are over twenty minutes. Swans have been creating longer and longer songs as they have progressed as a band, but on The Glowing Man Swans seem to run out of steam somewhat and lose their ability to fill these song with enough ideas to justify their length. With the exception of “The World Looks Red / The World Looks Black” – which has some utterly demonic chanting to start off, and then explodes into a dark cacophony after the seven minute mark – the first half of the album feels deserted and barren. Apart from this, the only break in the dreary death march that is this album’s first thirty minutes is the slightly up-tempo groove that “The Cloud of Unknowning” resolves into after a full 18 minutes. There are no major changes to plodding pace or the desolate feeling of the album until this point.
On the second half of The Glowing Man, things finally start to get engaging. “Frankie M” and “When Will I Return” have Jennifer Gira take a turn on the vocals, which is utterly haunting and serves as an interesting counterpoint to Michael Gira’s crazed growl. After this, Swans launches into the dynamic and huge title track “The Glowing Man” which changes tempo and mood several times over its twenty minute runtime, and manages to be as gripping and intense as “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture” even if it seems to borrow several tricks from that song.
And it really does seem that Swans’ habit of recycling these musical tricks from their older material takes away the tense feeling of the unknown that drives their music. Swans has always been an experimental band, known for pushing boundaries and challenging audiences with extreme ideas, but The Glowing Man is not a great example of this. While there are some great tracks, a lot of The Glowing Man simply feels too familiar. Michael Gira has said that this album is the band’s last in their current form, so hopefully a change up with see them return with some fresher ideas.
Aaron’s Score: 6.8
8.2 / 10