The final LP from the Portland noise/improve duo Yellow Swans has titles indicating either that they feel trapped (“Foiled”, “Limited Space”), or that they’ve decided to change course and look forward to the future (“Opt Out”, “New Life”, “Going Places”). That’s the nature of titles for instrumental music. They work as framing devices, whether the intention is joking or serious.
Since 2001, Yellow Swans have amassed such a body of work that it seems like their discography will elude completist collectors for years to come. Once a band is gone, the meaning of that collecting changes from following to remembering. The band gets a new life. The “so long, it’s been good to know you” vibe of Going Places’s song titles seems an indication of the multiple purposes and meanings in the album’s status as their last.
Musically, it seems no elegy or closing bookend. It’s as restless and creative as the duo have ever been. In some ways, it’s even more so, as Yellow Swans, always progressive in their approach to the noise/melody duality, do an especially good job here of making pretty and even tuneful songs that still have that tear-your-face-off quality.
Going Places starts quiet but not monolithic. “Foiled” is foggy atmosphere, but with a stick-like percussion sound, formed of static, pushing along like a train or mechanical force. It clears out at the end, giving way to a wind that feels electric. The 13-minute “Opt Out” starts similar, with an eerie balance of misty mood and moving parts, but builds in intensity, courtesy of more typically ‘noise’-y blasts of static. It carries a tune like a film score might, and continues to do so while they’re ripping and roaring against our eardrums. That fierce progression makes it cathartic in more ways than one.
This tightrope between sharpness and immersive soundscape, between control and chaos, composition and randomness, is walked throughout the album, and of course those are all proven to be false dichotomies, or at least it’s clear that Yellow Swans continually destroy those lines. Theirs is very aggressive music, or very pretty aggressive music. A track like “Limited Space” contains rage of some sort, or at least a heavy sense of distilled foreboding. But the stride of it is also quite majestic, and the specifics quite diverse; a junkbox of chimes, fuzz, what could be guitars sweeping across the desert, and what could be a film-score composer leading a group of string players. Those chime-like sounds remind me of the railroad again, either the clanging of the crossing signal or the sound of hammers hitting steel as the tracks were constructed, out of sweat and blood no doubt.
That image in turn evokes the pain and promise of expansion, of moving forward, of going places. The final notes of Going Places are more electrifying and horrifying than mechanical or steadfast. They leave us in a cloud, a cloud of echo.