Swans, My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky: It’s Like “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” but Heavier
With the first new Swans album in 14 years, My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky (Young God), vocalist/guitarist/producer/songwriter Michael Gira is showing how a reunion is properly handled. You don’t just go out there and trot out the greatest hits. You don’t make it a blatant cash-grab. You create something. You reenter a headspace, make a new record, and give your fans a new context for understanding how you’ve grown and progressed since the last go around. Most importantly, you don’t try to remake what you’ve already done. Gira, who’s spent his post-Swans years developing the apocalyptic-folk strains of Angels of Light, reignites Swans with the vigor of a new band already established in its approach, vehement in its creativity and positively crushing in its sonics.
Joining him in the endeavor are former Swans guitarists Norman Westberg and Christoph Hahn, as well as a host of personalities from various Swans and Angels of Light tours and albums, including drummer/percussionists Phil Puleo and Thor Harris and bassist Chris Pravdica. Conspicuously absent is Jarboe. Gira’s songwriting is center, as ever, and several of the My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky cuts could be heard on the precursor limited acoustic record I am Not Insane (also Young God), which was released in order to finance the recording of this new album. Here, though, the tracks are fleshed out with sundry noises and percussive twists and very much “plugged in,” opener “No Words/No Thoughts” tackling a godless universe with all the crushing weight that implication has for mortality. At over nine minutes, the song undulates rhythmically, reeling back and unleashing a growing barrage of new elements one after another until cutting to Gira’s vocals so the effect can be even greater when the music starts again.
So this new incarnation of Swans isn’t afraid to be heavy, but there’s more to their sound than slow builds and crashes. Anyone wondering why Swans had such an influence over the generation of acts that followed need look no further than tracks like “Reeling the Liars In” or the even-more sinister “Jim,” which evoke dark atmospheres that’s largely to Gira’s desolate-sounding vocals. In “Jim” especially, Gira’s vocal cadence shows what players like Steve Von Till and Scott Kelly of Neurosis were able to glean from Swans’ original run and put in the context of their own work. One could say the same for “My Birth,” on which every snare hit feels like a gut-punch in an insistent rhythm the likes of which Godflesh based most of its tenure on. Despite a number of jumps in aesthetic, from “Reeling the Liars In,” which but for the personnel involved probably could have been an Angels of Light song and no one would have batted an eye, to “Jim,” to “My Birth,” and so on, Gira is what ties the album together.
As such, it should come as no surprise to those familiar with Swans past work that Gira takes a step aside for “You Fucking People Make Me Sick,” letting folker Devendra Banhart handle the front-end of a call-and-response duet with his three-year-old daughter, Saoirse Gira. And all the while the sweet chorus of “I love you/I need you,” is playing out, the title has you thinking there’s a turn coming, but it’s no less satisfying when, after the line, “Now give me what is mine,” the music turns into cacophonous noise, violent sounds like horror’s ascent. The switch off is evidence that much like its cumbersome title, the music of My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky demands the full attention of anyone bold enough to engage it. Both “You Fucking People Make Me Sick” and the once-again Gira-led “Inside Madeline,” which of all the tracks on the record follows the guitar most a manner that might be called “traditional,” show a confluence of sides for Swans; the atmospheric weight and the tonal aggression. At 6:37, “Inside Madeline” is the second longest track behind the opener, and though like the song before it, it also comes in movements, the twisted waltz on which it concludes is one of My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky’s most satisfying sections.
“Eden Prison” could have been the song that spawned the entire post-metal genre. It is perhaps the album’s hardest-hitting song, with Gira’s vocal out front once again laying out the lyrical dichotomy between religious-prescribed paradise and death or destruction as the angular interplay of guitar takes swipes at the human sense of humanity. Where else could it lead but huge crashes and ringing notes? Thinking about hearing this song come out of the P.A. system at next year’s Roadburn festival in The Netherlands makes me want to blush. “Gosh, that’s heavy,” and so forth. Even better is when the song ends and starts again.
My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky ends with “Little Mouth,” a brooding Americana afterthought for an album that’s already trounced your psyche and made short work of expectation and prejudice as to what it might or might not have been. Swans are back — that’s the headline — but if you go into this album thinking it’s 1985 again, you’re going to get the disappointment you deserve. Like I said above, this is not a rehash or attempt to capitalize on what the band was more than two decades ago, but instead, a visceral reinventing of Gira’s creative personality today. What’s even more striking than the material of the record is how comfortable Gira seems back in his role in Swans after so long focused on different goals with Angels of Light. His performance here is at his best, and there are times where it sounds like he’s pulling the string to unravel the universe, but although elements of Swans’ past show up, My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky is a new challenge entirely.
Tags: New York, New York City, Swans, Young God