Michael Gira’s lauded experimental rock group returns with an apocalyptic shriek.
The Gate, a live album released this month to help fund Swans’ next studio record, is a difficult creature. It offers expanded versions of already-epic tracks, as well as a peek at half-formed material. It is both too much and not enough -- and with just 2,500 copies available, it’s the kind of warts-and-all compilation that should appeal to Swans obsessives with an interest in ensuring the band’s continued success.
“Frankie M” opens the record with an appropriately dissonant ambient growl, punctuated by clattering cymbals that seem more like wind chimes in a storm than human-helmed instrumentation. The music swells -- if you can call it music -- and overwhelms. Gira’s shaman wail comes in at the five-minute mark, rhythmic and terrifying. This is a challenge, a deliberate provocation. The gate is open: You can cross over or turn away.
After the searing intensity of the first 15 minutes, fuzz-laden guitars and sing-song lyrics take center stage. It’s a strange juxtaposition, even for a band known for veering wildly between sounds and modes. Musically, the track is something of a dead end, with Gira chanting over pounding drums and sludgy guitars with little change in dynamics as barrages of quarter notes blend into one another. If “Frankie M” is a litmus test designed to weed out the faint of heart, it’s an unqualified success.
“A Little God in My Hands", from last year’s acclaimed album To Be Kind, has the same minimalist composition, but it also shows off Gira’s impressive vocal chops. The brass assault midway through the song, complete with a big, lusty trombone, is a welcome respite from the monolithic start of the record. Delicate chimes make an interesting counterpoint to the mechanical drums and bass, and Gira’s Lizard King howl soars in on monotonous strings, asking “What’s my name?”
“Apos—Cloud of Unforming” is another psychedelic journey, at first recalling the entrancing, layered soundscapes of drone/post-rock acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Eerie sleigh bells rattle over undulating waves of distorted guitars, until Thor Harris’s snare unleashes a burst of arrhythmic shrapnel. Here is the echoing wilderness, Swans’ musical habitat; at last, Gira unleashes a torrent of tongue-speaking, and it feels like the plodding is headed somewhere. Chimes and toms fill the back end of the track with shattering vibrations, then the measured bassline of “Just a Little Boy” slinks in to start disc two. “Cloud of Forgetting” is contemplative, almost lyrical until it builds to a blaring intensity. “Bring the Sun/Black Eyed Man” is another hazy slow burn on an album filled with them, although lyrics likes “Joseph is making my body fly", are some of Gira’s most evocative and unsettling.
“When Will I Return?” is a rare acoustic number, serving as a macabre palate cleanser. “New Rhythm Thing” carries the acoustic torch, before “People Like Us” marries caustic lyrical artistry (“rust colored clouds", “fallopian friends”) with gentle strums. “Red Rhythm Thing", which Gira refers to as a “prelude” to a “pyramid of sound” from the previous record, is a simple guitar melody, but it shows that even a seemingly tossed-off riff has massive theoretical underpinnings in his creative process. “Finally, Peace” closes the second disc on a questioning, open-ended note. These acoustic sketches will be of interest to completists who want a glimpse of Gira’s nascent and evolving songs, but after the punishing length of the first half of the album, it’s hard to imagine most fans sticking around this long.
Swans have always been adept at frustrating expectations. Gira often spends 10 minutes building an impenetrable drone wall only to have it crumble into a by-the-numbers rock riff, explode into a stratospheric vocal solo, or sink into a grungy bayou brass groove. A Swans record is an experience, usually an electrifying mixture of wonder and dread. Their music is sometimes sublime, sometimes excruciating, but almost never boring. The Gate, unfortunately, is so bloated that the endless reverberations become tedious rather than hypnotic, and the virtually silent crowd doesn’t add much energy to the proceedings. The moments of thunderous catharsis and warped Americana familiar from albums like 2012’s The Seer are few and far between.
Many of the songs on The Gate are from To Be Kind, sometimes teased out into trance-inducing behemoths of 30 minutes or more. It lacks some of the momentum and surprise of Swans’ studio work, but then, that’s one of the possible pitfalls a live album. Diehards will appreciate hearing Swans in the wild, but casual fans might be better off sticking with album cuts before crossing The Gate’s imposing threshold.