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My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky
Young God
Format: CD / LP / MP3
Release Date: September 21, 2010
By Dave Clifford March 21, 2011

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

This review is a true challenge. I’m a longtime fan of Michael Gira’s work, from the spartan brutality of Filth (Sky, 1983) to the lush symphonic crescendos of the band’s original, um, swan song Soundtracks For the Blind (Young God) in 1996 and on through various incarnations of Angels of Light. Gira has remained a huge influence and shining beacon for me of how an artist can continue to evolve without losing integrity along the way.

However, calling My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky a Swans release is a bold move that thereby invites the most intense scrutiny. Upon retiring the Swans name in 1997, Gira then made a perfectly sensible segue into the arguably “mature” sounds of Angels of Light, where he spent five albums and over a decade exploring somewhat more subdued structures and lyrical themes. Now, somewhat out of the blue, Gira has decided to revivify his former band (in which he remained the only constant throughout its 15 year existence) with an interesting hodgepodge of collaborators who span both the history of Swans and Angels of Light, with the glaring omission of longtime vocalist/keyboardist Jarboe. On paper, the idea of shuffling band members seems like a fitting way to pick up where the ensemble left off – such as pitting the guitarist from the band’s earliest, most pugilistic lineup (the immensely talented Norman Westberg) alongside shining players of later Swans and Angels lineups. However, the end result is a gaunt, seemingly indecisive facsimile of Gira’s two long-running bands that seldom seems to work – as the liner notes suggest – as a way to move forward.

The nine-and-a-half minute opener, “No Words/No Thoughts,” begins with Swans’ signature ominous instrumental/noise overture that builds slowly over the course of the song’s first half before settling in to the vocal portion. Clearly, Gira has become more confident in his vocals over the past several years. Where the dynamics of the music in elder Swans would swell into massive cacophony and/or melodic catharsis with vocals as another layer in the swirling din, it is instead squashed here beneath Gira’s vocals. The best elements of Swans music was that during their most intense moments it truly sounded like  every instrument was on the verge of spiraling out of control into chaos, but somehow it all held together in a frenetic mass – a sonic tornado of purely destructive elements held together by inertia alone.

Throughout the album, My Father lacks the massive low end, the seething and slithering keyboard drone, and perhaps most importantly, the emotional intensity that made Swans unparalleled. The latter is perhaps most important, since any criticism of the album’s production should not affect the validity of the album as the next step in Swans’ musical progression. But, having compared and contrasted Swans recordings from the band’s many earlier incarnations against this album, the latest effort simply doesn’t hold up to the canon. While most elder Swans songs were monolithic in their repetitive simplicity, the tracks on My Father attempt to splice those rhythmic elements into the more folksy, lyrical material of later Angels of Light with little success.

“You Fucking People Make Me Sick,” with a cameo vocal performance from Devendra Banhart, offers a brief surreal respite from the staid proceedings, but without any real payoff other than juxtaposing a folksy nursery rhyme with abrupt noise. “Eden Prison” is perhaps the most traditionally Swans-like song on the album, though, still, if we were to ignore the last 14 years and this were the first new recording from Gira since 1997, it wouldn’t have the same impact as his previous work, nor would it sound like a fitting move forward. Sadly, despite every effort put forth in the album’s accompanying press material that My Father isn’t to be considered a reunion or nostalgia act, it is unavoidably an attempt to draw from the past without being able to capture what made that past special in the first place. Swans had a magical catharsis at its heart and an ability to wrap melody within swirling rhythmic drone. The version of Swans heard here has none of that.

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