Swans’ 1995 release The Great Annihilator was an album about the brighter side of transcendence –there was a good deal of darkness on the album, yes, but on the whole Michael Gira and co. made dissolving your body and jumping into the void seem like a pretty sweet deal. 2016’s The Glowing Man follows a similar path to that release – while the album’s immediate predecessors (2012’s The Seer and 2014’s To Be Kind) sought to burn and bludgeon the listener into submission, The Glowing Man offers a kinder, more meditative hand. Transcendence is terrifying, yes, but is also beautiful in its own way, and The Glowing Man illustrates this premise perfectly.
Musically, this album is still firmly rooted in the musical traditions that have defined Swans since their 2010 rebirth – drone, repetition, and groove all wedded to extremely dense, lengthy songs. But the guitars are gentler, the lyrics less caustic than what’s come before, so while the album is still a difficult listen, it’s a less draining one. “The World Looks Red / The World Looks Black” drifts by on delicate guitars and percussion before shifting into a tent revival stomp, Gira imploring the listener to “follow the Maker man.” “Cloud of Forgetting” and “Cloud of Unknowing” are elaborate and layered, with instrumentation ranging from acoustic guitar and bells to jagged snatches of cello (courtesy of guest Okkyung Lee), but serve as sorrowful calls to prayer as opposed to punishing trials by fire. That’s not to say that The Glowing Man is entirely mellow; both the title track (a paean to physical and spiritual transformation) and “Frankie M” (a lamentation on the subject of drug addiction) offer some of the most relentless grooves in the band’s catalog, and most songs, even at their slowest, are quite intense.
The only issue with this album is that, compared to its predecessors, the usual Swans peaks and valleys are somewhat muted. There is of course catharsis and climax, but nothing as immediately arresting as, say, the Francophone freak-out of “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture” or the stark beauty of “A Piece of the Sky.” The Glowing Man as a whole feels like a deliberate, pointed exhale rather than panicked hyperventilation – appropriate, given the meditative nature of the album, but ultimately less thrilling on a visceral level than its forebears.
Still, The Glowing Man is an album that can stand proudly in the ranks of Swans’ musical catalog in terms of scope, ambition and sheer craft. There’s something extremely appropriate about the 2-hour double album ending with “Finally, Peace,” a track about the apocalypse that is the closest Swans has gotten to pop in 20 years. Such duality defines the core of The Glowing Man: beauty through chaos, melody through disharmony, bliss through annihilation. If such a juxtaposition sounds appealing to you, then as Gira once sang: come on in, come inside.