Sound Itself As The Only Way Forward In Swans’ Leaving Meaning

Riot Material
4 min readOct 11, 2019

out October 25 on Young God Records
Reviewed by John Payne

Michael Gira founded/guiding-lighted the sort of no-wave / noise / spiritual-purification band Swans in NYC 35 some odd years ago, and, roughly, he’s made a career out of trying musically to express the inexpressible ever since. After a hiatus of a few years, during which he formed Angels of Light, Gira re-formed Swans in 2010 and proceeded to release a series of exceedingly, brutally beautiful double-CDs of mental mayhem-catharsis.

The new Leaving Meaning, as the title might indicate, is a study in ambiguity and its cousin obliqueness, while not quite touching on ambivalence. To achieve the album’s sonically spectacular sagas, Gira drew upon several excellent “other music”-type players and thinkers, “selected,” he says, “for both their musical and personal character.” Participants include past Swans mates Kristof Hahn (guitars, vocals, mixes) and drummer/Mellotron-ist Larry Mullin (a.k.a. Toby Dammit, ex-Silver Apples, Residents and currently Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds keyboardist); Thor Harris on percussion, trumpet, clarinet, sounds, bells, vibes; electronics wiz Ben Frost; Anna and Maria von Hausswolff on choral backing vocals, and the incredible neo-cabaret singer-pianist Baby Dee.

Swans Leaving Meaning: various personnel

Well, it’s expressionist, maybe. Leaving’s songs are only songs per se, the majority of them structured as repeated verses, without a traditional chorus or bridge, etc. The verses can be confessions, which become incantations via much repetition. The often Gregorian or Tibetan chantlike pieces are mostly long-ass things that build and build, accumulating volume and density, or bursting out in explosive surprises, like revelations. Gira flirts with boredom or irritation, but it says a lot about his and his players’ imaginative choices of tonalities and especially their judicious mixing that the resulting sonorities really are mesmerizing, not hectoring and tedious. In the best new music, after all, to create a third entity is the idea: 1+1= 3. Throughout the album, Gira and co. employ their many streams of sound to equate with any “meaning” to the songs at all. The basic gambit is to mix tonalities so that they confer and clash with other tonalities, creating overtones, microtones and such in the process.

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Riot Material

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