Another new chapter in the enduring career of Swans sees Michael Gira enlist the help of a host of collaborators for the latest incarnation of the band. Having cleared the decks by dispatching the line up that delivered the incredible run of albums that began with 2012’s The Seer and ended with 2016’s The Glowing Man, it’s inevitable that the Leaving Meaning would sound somewhat different to what came before.
The result is an album that retains Swans’ expansive and threatening approach, but for the most part sounds much closer to a stripped back M Gira solo project. It doesn’t beat you over the head, or pound you into submission (like Cop, for example), but instead slowly unfurls in a series of hypnotic, almost post-rock inspired, songs that coil themselves around your brain, letting repetition and mood do the work.
For those requiring the old style Swans, there’s a slight nod to the past with The Hanging Man, which finds Gira yelping over a relentless repetitious riff and ominous backdrop. Sunfucker inhabits similar territory, starting off as an almost ritualistic chant to surrender yourself on the alter of the Sunfucker. Once the drums kick in around the midpoint, it’s all too easy to get swept along with its incessant rhythmic groove. If Gira were at the head of a sun-worshipping cult, this would be the track he’d deploy to brainwash new disciples.
Elsewhere things are lighter in tone if not in theme. It’s Coming, It’s Real is essentially a spiritual, complete with a host of backing vocals that take the whole thing to church as Gira encourages us to face the inevitable. This is followed by Some New Things which could feasibly have been written by The Rolling Stones, were they ever lost in a desert in the midst of a feral drug haze.
Amnesia is a quiet acoustic number which, on the surface, appears to be gentle and introspective, but is packed with harrowing imagery and warnings of climate disaster. There are hints of Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western influences too, which adds to its sweeping cinematic quality. And it’s this sense of widescreen epicness that perhaps personifies Leaving Meaning. Even in its quietest moments, it is an album that feels positively huge. Gira understands how to use space and how to allow songs to breathe effectively. The result is an album that often manages to sound claustrophobic whilst feeling wide open. Cathedrals Of Heaven is a perfect example of this, with the musical accompaniment being barely there, but Gira’s droning vocals bring real dread to the table. Whilst asking “who made us like this?” he throws imagery of blackened tongues, terrible infections, and folded-back skin into the mix.
Sonically, Swans might well be different this time around, but some things never change. Gira’s ability to look at the world and show us how terrifying it is continues to reap rewards. It might not throughout be what we’ve come to expect from Swans, but it is decidedly relevant.