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Dark Angels

Photo by Wim Van De Hulst
LISTENING TO SWANS ALWAYS HURT. THEY PUNISHED you with huge slabs of walloping, slowly churning sound, overcut by Michael Gira's bellows and screams. His lyrics described a brutal world, one reduced to primal power, where the only salient distinction was which side of the equation you existed on -- master or slave, warden or prisoner, boss or worker, producer or consumer. Seeing Swans perform was like paying to watch a man in hell for 90 minutes. Others could possibly reach transcendence, but never, ever Gira, it seemed -- he was Sisyphus rolling that stone up the hill, destined to fail and, worse, fully cognizant of his fate. A self-fulfilling prophet of his own doom.

And in fact, Gira never enjoyed the level of success that direct Swans descendants like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails achieved in the '90s. Gira lost some of his proto-
industrial following when the opera-trained vocalist Jarboe joined the band in the mid-'80s, ushering in melody, more complex arrangements and a (gasp!) female voice, and 1989's lush The Burning World, made with producer Bill Laswell and his Material ring of world-folk musicians for the MCA imprint Uni Records, further alienated O.G. Swans fans and failed to reach many new ones. Gira and MCA separated acrimoniously, and for the next 10 years, Swans released a score of albums through different labels with various lineups; Gira and Jarboe were the only constants.

Some albums -- like 1991's White Light From the Mouth of Infinity, most of which Gira now openly disdains -- combined the unsubtle, monolithic sonic power of early Swans albums with lush, layered textures (12-string guitar, violin, mandolin, bouzouki, etc.) to create a sense of cinematic epicness; with Gira's lyrics increasingly given to elemental images (blood, earth, skin, poisoned seas, mirrored skies), Swans music had become positively biblical in scope -- existential despair as directed by Cecil B. De Mille. Later albums incorporated still other novel touches -- found sounds, taped conversations -- but didn't seem to cohere as complete albums. In 1997, 15 years after their birth in New York, Swans finally ended, playing a series of powerful, unsentimental farewell shows across Europe and the United States.

The acoustic-oriented Angels of Light is Gira's first song-based project since Swans' demise, and New Mother, the Angels' intense, gorgeous debut recently released on Gira's Young God Records, is the first Gira album of songs in over a decade not to involve Jarboe. But, Gira claims on the telephone from New York, that's not the only difference. There's also been a shift in theme.

"Power, degradation -- everyday-life kinds of things -- was a subject that obsessed me for a lot of years," he says, laughing gently, "but I wanted to leave that behind me. This record is much more personal -- I consciously strived not to hamper the thing with concepts too much. I just wanted to make music that someone could listen to, probably alone, and glean some kind of feeling from it."

While "This Is Mine" and "His Entropic Highness" ("That has to do with drinking too much and discovering just how awful a person one can be") are the latest in a ã long string of what Gira calls "guilt trip" songs, much of New Mother comprises songs that aren't as bile-filled or openly self-despising.

"There're a lot of songs on this record that I guess you'd say are poignant, or love songs, or tributes to other people," Gira continues. "'Praise Your Name' is in memory of some of the beautiful and violent and vengeful women I've known. 'Man With the Silver Tongue' is a tribute to a couple of Viennese artists from the '60s whom I really admire, Rudolf Schwarzkogler and Hermann Nitsch, using the kind of pagan and Catholic imagery that they used. 'Inner Female' is a tribute to the artist Francis Bacon, someone I've idolized for years. And 'The Garden Hides the Jewel' is a tribute to Marcel Duchamp's L'Etant Donnés, the artwork that he did for the last 20 years of his life, a life-size diorama that's really a magical little world."

RECORDING NEW MOTHER WASN'T easy, as it came at a time of financial adversity and personal upheaval for Gira.

"I started in Atlanta, ran out of money, got about halfway through and then went through this personal kind of thing," he says. "I packed up my van and came back [to New York] . . . and I had to adjust my attitude toward the place. When I was here the first time, for 15 years or whatever it was, I spent a lot of time alone in my room and then going out and drinking. Now I don't really do that as much -- I try to get out more, be active, use the city as a resource, because it has great museums and great musicians."

Gira managed to finance the rest of the album -- some of it through generous loans from Swans fans via the Swans' Web site (www.swans.pair.com) -- and resumed recording New Mother, working with longtime Swans associates like keyboardist Bill Rieflin, guitarist Christoph Hahn, and percussionists Larry Mullins and Thor Harris, all of whom contributed backing vocals
and additional work on Mellotron, lap steel guitar, vibraphone and grand piano. Ex­Hugo Largo violinist Hahn Rowe, accordionist/singer Birgit Staudt and a dozen others filled out Gira's original voice-and-guitar recordings. The result is like a set of Paul Bowles short stories -- luminous and harrowing, with almost suffocating intimacy set next to stately, sweeping grandeur. The album -- and the Angels' current tour -- seems to have been a hard-won artistic and personal victory, and Gira savors it.

"Jarboe was a tremendous influence on me for years, but things change," he says. "I think it's always good to feel insecure and sort of uncertain about what you're doing, because it leads you to new areas. Just playing this music has been really gratifying, not relying on the old Swans tricks. It's more focused on how well I sing and perform, how I can pull off the songs, which is a huge difference. It's more of a challenge. I find at this point in my life it's a better thing to be doing."


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