There was a point a few years ago during a particular show when I was on tour with Angels of Light, with Akron/Family serving as the backing band. It was during the song The Provider. Seth’s guitar was sustaining one open chord (very loudly), rising to a peak, then crashing down again in a rhythm that could have been the equivalent of a deep and soulful act of copulation. The whole band swayed with this arc. Really was like riding waves of sound. I thought right then, “You know, Michael, Swans wasn’t so bad after all...”
This is M. Gira explaining his decision to resuscitate his former band 14-years after he wrapped it up in a box and put it under the bed. In a way, it’s a strange connection to make, and it’s one I often make as well: when I close my eyes and imagine what Swans sounds like, I, too, hear the same tsunami of sound, rising and then crashing down. (And though I never imagined Swans to be the sound of sex, I did, to be honest, try it once.)
However, if you go back and listen to Swans you will find that their dynamics are often significantly broader than how we remember. In short, what I am trying to say is that if you buy My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky expecting it sound like M. Gira picked up right where he left off after 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind, then you will be sorely disappointed. This is not to say, of course, that My Father... is itself a disappointing record. On the contrary, it is excellent.
My Father... opens with “No Words/No Thoughts,” and, more specifically, the soft tolling of church bells, which is surprisingly menacing. It is nine and a half minutes of no wave guitars, pounding drums and quiet/loud dynamics. It is an auspicious start and it readily fulfils M. Gira’s desire be once again “riding waves of sound.”
The two next songs, however, “Reeling the Liars in” and “Jim” sound like they would be more comfortable on an Angels of Light record. The former could be sweet if it weren’t for the lyrics: “Reeling the liars in, we are reeling the liars in / we are removing their face, collecting their skin, we are reeling the liars in...” The latter is the best song on the record in that it manages to juxtapose between lurching drums some quasi-religious lyrics, some “na na nas” and some truly awful bursts of noise.
Devendra Banhart and M. Gira’s daughter, Saoirse, appear as guest vocalists on the frantically strummed folk-number “You Fucking People Make Me Sick,” and it’s nice to see that M. Gira won’t even spare his daughter from his rather bleak world view: “I love you, I need you, oh show me how to shine / I love you, young flower, now give me what is mine,” they sing, before the song becomes a cross between an industrial soundscape and the noise of dive bombing Stukas.“Inside Madeline” is a ballad that is just over six and a half minutes long. It’s the prettiest song on the record, which might explain why the band felt the need to spend the first four minutes subverting it with an introduction that builds in intensity before dropping into the song proper. (The Stukas make a small return here.) The penultimate song is “Eden Prison,” and, in a way, I consider it to be My Father...’s signature track – a rolling rock song with chants and that typical Swans’ sardonicism in which Eden is characterised as a prison.
The record closes out with “Little Mouth,” another song that would have been quite comfortable on We Are Him. It does, in fact, sound like a close cousin to the two songs that closed out that record. This, then, brings me back to the point I was making at the beginning of the review: if you come to this record with any preconceptions, you will be disappointed; if you come with an open mind, then you will find it, like most anything else M. Gira is associated with, to be well worth your time.
Swans are touring in mid-March, and I will be trying my damndest to make sure I am at that show. They are not going to sound like they did in 1985, a period during which The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne described them as “doom rock,” and they are not going to sound like they did in 1996 when they finally called it quits, but, whatever manifestation Swans takes this time around, if the concert is anything like this record, then it will be a very welcome return.
My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky
Reviewed on Sunday, 28 November 2010