Among all the bands that delve deeply into dark, erotic Rock, Swans stands alone. Under the perpetual and gravely brilliant leadership of Michael Gira, Swans has set a singular course that pays no attention to musical or cultural trends to make its point. Gira’s musical output has evolved over the past three decades (counting a 13-year hiatus), beginning as Swans’ Industrial fatalism, which sounded like a guitar-shaped chainsaw cutting an airplane in half, and morphing into a still brutally heavy but amazingly melodic and nuanced Pop version of that same general idea under the banner of Angels of Light. And the connective tissue linking all of Swans’ various incarnations and intonations to one another has always been Gira’s doom-laden and emotionally concussive lyrics, every line as sharp as a boot razor and every word designed to cast a pall over any and all proceedings.
Although Gira’s recent Angels of Light releases have been considerably sunnier in atmosphere, the gravity-on-Jupiter heaviness of the material he created for My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky convinced him to return to the Swans persona.
Although the chiming church bells that announce the album’s eight-minute epic opener “No Words/No Thoughts” hint at a lighter atmosphere, the Wagnerian guitar squall that follows, along with Gira’s eulogistic Nick Cave-meets-Lou Reed drone vocalizing, dispel that notion. Musically, the Celtic Folk hymn “Reeling the Liars In” waltzes along with a melodic lilt as Gira’s lyrical focus (“Here is my hand, now drive the nail in/We are reeling the liars in”) counterpoints the song’s tone, but he climbs back on the funereal bandwagon for the electric dirge of “Jim” and the Middle Eastern Black Sabbath slam of “My Birth.”
But perhaps the best disconnect on the album is the pretty-mandolin-to-ugly-piano-and-guitar-apocalypse of “You Fucking People Make Me Sick,” a velvet shiv featuring dissonant vocals by Gira’s 3 1/2-year-old daughter and an ominous Devendra Banhart.Gira has been quick to state that this new iteration of Swans is no crass reunion but a millennial resurrection of an idea that Gira believed in 1997 had run its course. It turns out there’s still plenty of venom left in Swans’ fangs after all.