Michael Gira’s challenging, confrontational, experimental post-punk Swans was always an outfit with (web-footed?) legs. From their inception in 1982 they continued intact, barring a few line-up changes right up until 1997.
Announcing their reactivation at the start of this year with the simple message “Swans are not dead” on their MySpace page, Gira’s re-emergence under the Swans moniker (the album funded by his solo album I Am Not Insane) has been eagerly anticipated by those who have long valued his uncompromising mix of hard, abrasive rock with acoustic, blues, world music,folk, and even latterly pop elements.
Happily, age doesn’t appear to have overly softened Gira’s aesthetic. The nihilism and negativity in which tracks like No Words/No Thoughts, Reeling The Liars In, My Birth, You Fucking People Make Me Sick, Eden Prison and Little Mouth are rooted is comparable to much in the back catalogue. Suffused with dark menace and implied or actual violence, whether burning upliars and “collecting their skin” or singing of “the blood that you spilled”, a close listening to many of these tracks can prove harrowing.
The music, whilst occasionally apocalyptic and doom-laden (No Words/NoThoughts, parts of My Birth), equally frequently deploys a kind of low-level,slow-burn menace and sense of anxiety. Inside Madeline exemplifies this, the instrumental first half of the track subtly building as it goes on, until the arrival of Gira’s world weary, Mark Lanegan-like vocal. Lighter moments, at least musically, arrive in the form of the positively sing-song like Reeling The Liars In and Little Mouth with its jaunty whistling.
In a way that recalls other bands and artists – chiefly Nick Cave, but also at times The The, The Doors and Johnny Cash – Gira also uses a fair amount of religious imagery. From the album’s title itself to the tale of vengeance in Reeling The Liars In, complete with cutting out of sins and driving of nails into hands; and the juxtaposition on Jim of a request to “raise up our hands in prayer” and “ride your bitch to the ultimate sin”, Christianity’s demands and punishments have never seemed darker or more oppressive.
This is certainly, then, not an album to be taken lightly. Whilst this may be its chief difficulty, and one that will undoubtedly deter and daunt some listeners, it is nevertheless good to have a band and an artist with this darkly poetic a vision back recording and performing once again. His black, intense and serious charms are such as deserve to be welcomed, consumed and chewed over at length.