Three decades of angry glares

Michael Gira makes music in moods—and nearly three decades into an uncompromising career, it is still this essential fact that defines his output.

Michael Gira makes music in moods—and nearly three decades into an uncompromising career, it is still this essential fact that defines his output.

1. “Why Be Ashamed Of Hatred?”

When Gira started Swans in 1982, the mood was clearly anger. Built out of New York City’s No Wave scene, early Swans meshed minimalism, repetitive beatings and noise tendencies into a musical form that became known as industrial. At the same time he honed his rough, direct lyricism around the topics of humiliation, domination and suffering. Swans played loudly, and with a goddamn grudge.

One of Gira’s most infamous songs, “Raping a Slave” can be found on 1984’s Young God EP; it’s sociopathic narrator and rigid sonic brutalism laid the ground work for nihilist metal tendencies in the years to come.

2. “Dear God In Heaven, I Feel For You, I’ll Hang For You.”

The next era of Swans was defined by confusion. Not confusion in terms of intent—Gira has always had incredible focus in his aesthetic goals—rather, confusion based around the relationship between religion and self-construction.

When Gira added vocalist Jarboe to the proceedings, her influence saw Swans’ music becoming ethereal and expansive. The songs formed into beautiful and damaged hymns, much like the lyrical content they contained.

By 1987’s Children of God, Gira was rejecting the perception of Swans as the band most likely to make you deaf. He wanted more, and gave more.

The band advanced, releasing albums that were “post-‘ rock, metal, whatever, even before those genres had a name. This era cemented Gira’s place in the pantheon of influence on modern experimentalism.

3. “I, I’ve Been Lonely. And I, I’ve Been Blind.”

As Swans continued, the music shifted constantly. The main mood became a contemplative depression, a burning thoughtfulness. Due in part to the ever-changing lineup—Gira and Jarboe were the two constants, other contributors number in the dozens—later-era Swans oscillated between sounds but generally became less overtly heavy and more structurally dense.

Similarly, Gira all but abandoned his early screams and chants in favor of a boomish baritone with a dark timbre. This was the most sprawling time of Swans, where the music sounded huge and emotive.

It was also time for an end. In 1997, after 15 years of using “Swans” as a moniker to identify what was basically a solo project anyway, Gira retired the name. The band’s last album, Soundtracks for the Blind, was a virtuoso rendering of ambience and mood, using sound collage and diverse instrumentation as the final stamp on a name that had grown legendary.

4. “Will You Dream That We Breathe?”
Since the dissolution of Swans, Gira has kept busy. He runs Young God records and has supported the work of a generation of challenging musicians, folkish stuff that should ring a bell (Akron/Family, Devandra Banhart).

He also continued playing music and releasing albums, usually under the name Angels of Light. This newest endeavor sutures the gloomy mysticism that defined later Swans onto a structure that is decidedly Americana in nature.

The most recent Angels of Light album, 2007’s We Are Him, has moments that approach pop—and where Gira formerly snarled, there now rests a honed, droning voice. His simply played acoustic guitar pieces, as backed by the energetic performance of the Akron/Family crew (and a host of others) sound fantastic. Repetition is used to hypnotic effect. The tracks on We Are Him could easily fit into a scene of cowboys around a campfire, communing together before a dangerous drive the next day.

But Gira is not all about depression. This later life incarnation of his musical efforts seems to reflect a wider emotion, and an idyllic, traditional sense of the American landscape. (Around this time, Gira moved from his longtime home of New York City in favor of pastoral views in the Catskill Mountains.)

For an artist nearly three decades into his career, Michael Gira has proven resilient to time and while his music may be less fearsome now, doesn’t that kind of come with age? What’s impressive is that he’s spent the entirety of his three decades in music dancing on the fringes of sonic truth.