Swans - My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

by Andy Brown Rating:10 Release Date:2010-09-20

We knew something was happening when their Myspace changed. It simply read, in block capitols "SWANS ARE NOT DEAD..." But first, for the uninitiated, we'll start with a bit of history. Michael Gira's Swans started way back in 1982 releasing a self-titled EP followed by their debut LP, Filth, in '83 and the fantastically brutal Cop album in '84. After releasing a total of 11 increasingly varied and challenging studio albums through the 80s and 90s they disbanded in 1997. Gira went on to form the continually underrated Angels of Light and key member Jarboe worked on solo material and various collaborations including a great 2003 album with Neurosis. Swans were ahead of their time and, especially on those early recordings, were the most uncompromisingly loud and brutal band of the 80s this side of The Birthday Party. In fact, Nick Cave's gothic post-punks are the closest musical comparison I can think of.

Like Nick Cave, Michael Gira has mellowed, changed and refined his musical output over the years, moving from sparse, tense tracks like 'Job' on the Cop album to more anthemic tracks like 'The Sound of Freedom' on 1992 album Love of Life. Angels of Light too have had a varied and strong body of work, from the lovelorn country ballad 'Untitled Love Song' on 2001 release How I Loved You to the joyously unhinged collaboration with the Akron/Family in 2005. In January this year it was announced Gira was going to reform Swans, minus Jarboe for the moment. Gira released a limited release solo album, I Am Not Insane, containing acoustic versions of songs that would eventually go on the new Swans album proper. So now we've caught up and the wait is finally over, was My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky worth the wait?...in short, yes it most certainly was.

The album starts with 'No Words No Thoughts' and the sound of church bells chiming before pounding drums, a screeching guitar and a wall of sound envelope the speakers and Swans are well and truly back in business. Gira croons "See that man, hollow" as the track builds like Godspeed You! Black Emperor around him. Put simply, it's really impressive and really, really loud. The track effectively wipes the slate clean and it's kinda like they've never been away. 'Reeling the Liars in' gives you a chance to catch your breath - a quite beautiful lone-cowboy tune about revenge with Gira's deep, crooning vocals to the fore. 'Jim' builds slowly and marches defiantly onwards, backing singers chanting as Gira sings: "It's time to begin, it's time to just leave". It's hypnotic and one of the best things here.

'My Birth' is a wall of piano, guitar and marching drums- "Far, far in the distance I hear the howl of the beast"; Swans are closing in for the kill. Then comes the charmingly titled 'You Fucking People Make Me Sick' (Remember this is a band who named a live album Public Castration is a Good Idea in '86). There's acoustic guitars and whispered taunts from Gira then an unsettling child's voice doing some backing vocals... then there's a piano falling down the stairs and rumbling drums... and is that some kind of siren? It's disorientating, strange and really connects with the bands avant-garde roots. It's absorbing, interesting and, more to the point, it's really great. 'Inside Madeline' builds things back up again before dropping off into an acoustic waltz, with a string section and Giras croon taking you by the hand. It's a disarmingly beautiful, if slightly sinister, track. Closing track 'Little Mouth' recalls some of Gira's work with Angels of Light - a tender, melancholic and stunningly effective lament to finding love, direction and redemption.

Perhaps the most impressive track here, however, comes in the form of the pounding, unrelenting 'Eden Prison'. As one of the songs revealed in acoustic form on I Am Not Insane the pure weight the band bring to Gira's musings is hard to ignore - the drums are huge, the riffs tense and the mood apocalyptic. Like riding into town at the end of a western to settle old scores, Swans are as focused, intense and wonderful as you remember.

Overall it's not only relieved my fears of a below-par come back it's possibly the best thing they've ever done. However, those expecting a complete return to their early 80s sound won't find what they're after here. Yet it's dubious that Gira's fans would really expect or even want a simple re-tread of old glories. Swans are ploughing into 2010 with all the conviction and intensity you could hope for. If you haven't heard Swans before there couldn't be a more suitable starting point. "Swans are not dead" - now there's an understatement.

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