For being little more than a blip in rock music’s ever-developing history, the impact of No Wave’s short and abrasive smear across New York’s art scene is a continued and seminal presence heard in many of today’s more inspiring and important bands. As nonsensical and unlistenable as much of it was/is, No Wave warranted Brian Eno’s attention, and has since propagated bands like Liars, These Are Powers and Mi Ami to name a few, noise constructivists that envision No Wave’s boundlessness of sound as opportunity to net aural complaint, or simply blow minds.
As Michael Gira’s Swans have reemerged after 13 years of inactivity, it makes perfect sense that he would want to pursue the opportunities this band has historically offered. Though with My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, he seems less interested in being unlistenable, and more interested in utilizing its experimental base as a way to bolster a more theatrically composed concept.
Sound lame? It isn’t. Gira has stated that this new album isn’t a reunion record or some bid for nostalgia. Instead, the album is an evolutionary idea that functions under a familiar name and he’s enlisted the aid of many of his past/current collaborators from old Swans line-ups and his newer Angels Of Light, plus Devandra Banhart, Shearwater’s Thor Harris, Bill Reiflin and Mecury Rev’s Grasshopper, (though Jarboe is interestingly absent). As No Wave’s longest surviving offspring, Swans have a history of crafting some very severe odes to industrially charged sound pollutant and esoteric noise-based self-indulgence, carrying on a tradition of non-conforming vision relevant to late 70s NYC. Part mind numbing, part infuriating, part stimulating and always worth discussion, Swans remain a significant force in underground and independent music and this new album sees the No Wave merge with the compositionally avant-garde.
I may paint this album as bigger and bolder than it actually is, but as Liars’ Sisterworld album bends into a modernist vision of Los Angeles seen through Brett Easton Ellis’ complacency and Travis Bickle’s homicidal fantasy, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky seems to build onto something similarly thematic. This is only my opinion, of course, as one album has nothing to do with the other, but as Liars continue to perpetuate No Wave’s quintessential penchant for noise, a characteristic Gira helped create, Swans’ move toward something in the vein of Sisterworld or Drum’s Not Dead, something epic that only works as a whole. Supporting this “epic” claim, the album opens with nine minutes and twenty-four seconds of bells and operatic clash with No Words/No Thoughts.
As openers go, No Words/No Thoughts begs some patience, albeit with no apologies asked. You sort of know whether or not you’re going to like the album before Gira’s voice appears, which happens once the music shifts into a pulsing march. Shrieking piano keys and rhythmic back-and-forth close out the song before the country folk-flavored Reeling the Liars In plays with the “Spaghetti Western” sunset. And, then the carnival-ish Jim plays like an uprising, its subtle and singular bass line growing and growing as voices and instruments comingle. From then My Birth cycles along with one syncopated rhythmic foundation, operatic and intensified, more of an ornate take on trance music, or even jazz fusion.
Gira relies heavily on these orchestrated loops; songs like Eden Prison and the malevolent build up of Inside Madeline constructed with complex intensification. Inside Madeline, in particular, transitions into something sort of beautiful: Spanish guitar and balladry following the introduction’s generated dread.
But, because the cycled compositions are so intricate, they never feel monotonous. Even with Eden Prison’s rambunctious spin, you’re treated to both the song’s strength and its ambition. The benefit of the loop is that it only sounds simple, but once you delve deeper (headphones are a must) the artistic merit appreciates.
You Fucking People Make Me Sick features Gira’s three-year old daughter aiding in sung repetitions. The song itself doesn’t feature any verbalized profanity, though it abruptly bursts into kneaded piano keys and explosions of brass and a storm of instrumentation, while not nausea-inducing, still conjures nervousness and tension. The little girl matches Devandra Banhart’s desperate sorrow, though with the honest inflection of a child trying to sing. Little Mouth appropriately ends the album in a wave of angelic vocal and acoustic folk, which mutates into dissonant rockabilly just before Gira finishes the song a cappella.
Independent labels, record stores and music are built on the ideals of artistic freedom, creative growth and the notion that music enthusiasts will lend their support. It could be I’m not frequenting the correct avenues, or that I’m unaware of composed music like this existing in plentitude, but the independent and esoteric composer, this idea of the maverick, though exalted, artist, doesn’t seem to warrant the attention it should. Granted you have individuals like Mike Patton, John Zorn, Philip Glass, Diamanda Galás or the late Joe Zawinul, Sun Ra and Frank Zappa to name a few, musicians that want(ed) to challenge listeners by expanding on the concepts of modern music in all its era-defining permutations. But, albums like My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky remarks on the lack of compositional madmen gaining notoriety these days and it could have to do with musical awakenings capturing fewer imaginations in our reality of downloaded music and our collective delirium perpetuated by too much access to too much information.
Gira, through his many years as a champion of alienating force, has come up with something pretty amazing. My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky is an advance for Swans, and Gira comes across as less of an eccentric noise-generator, and more of a presence that requires our attention. No Wave has transcended its yearlong dominance in a citywide art scene, and become the basis for high art in a revivalist musical climate.