The Angels of Light
Sing 'Other People'
(Young God Records)
Control seems to be the subtext of our current cultural condition. Companies are advertised more for the quality of the customer service, the options it gives the customer in the name of tailoring the experience of buying lawnmowers to our personal busy lives of providing the self-same customer service down the line, instead of what they actually may do for you as a default. I harbor theories that this customer society may devolve into a meta-existence of never-ending, never-finished service requests, and maybe this is the way of all things. Nature is a clockwork with no easily definable hands showing on the dial - the gears ultimately serve to spin the other gears. its a harsher cosmic view than that of it all being a giant puzzle, where if we had enough distance and good enough vision, we would see the Big Picture.
This is where the role of the artist comes in. They manage to distill a moment of the universal dogs-eating-of-dog on canvas, in words, in song. They are the only ones that even come close to having some tangible control. MIchael Gira is an artist that exemplifies both sides of this coin: documenting the struggle for control through the tight control of his songs, and the intensity that is generated from that struggle, not unlike the release from splitting an atom, or breaking a heart. During his tenure as captain of the legendary NYC force-of-nature Swans, his picture was used as illustration for "intense" in the dictionary of 80's rock, also with a side note of "see 'juggernaut.'" I had a friend that was present in those heady days of wild New York and she said when Swans was playing somewhere, it was so loud that the waves of it could be felt in the disco down the street. Swans' output mellowed in its waning years from the slave-flogging of Cop and Holy Money into the contained tempest of their nadir Children of God, and that gave way to the magnificently pastoral yet spooky current project of his, The Angels of Light.
Angels of Light seems, at first, a ridiculously lightweight name under which this notorious figure would choose to labor, until you consider its subtext: The angel of light being Lucifer, whose tale of falling from grace and struggle for control is copiously retold elsewhere. Gira's perpetual baring of his internal struggles wedges in nicely with the lighter arrangement of the Angels' structure, showing that as we wisen and ripen, or fears and doubts and anxieties become no less puzzling then they were in our melodramatic youth, we just become more comfortable with them. The music of the Angels of Light has some similarities to the meta-cult-jamboree soundscapes of the much sunnier Polyphonic Spree and much proggier A Silver Mt. Zion, but the excess works more as a box lined with mirrors than an Up With People production.
Gira spent some time between each Angels release handcrafting (like, hand making the covers even) the excellent solo acoustic albums Solo Recordings At Home, Living '02, and I Am Singing To You From My Room and this practice has served his songwriting well, making each record more intimate in its feel no matter how ornate the instrumentation may be. On Sings 'Other People,' his oaken baritone is supported by his new protege's Akron/Family (every Angels album is performed by a different group of musicians) providing maybe the finest vehicle for his imagery ever. The group (whose recent Gira produced album is reviewed here) gives his chilly narrative a warn nest in which to hatch. The exhibition of portraits (hence the title) opens with "Lena's Song" a repetitive piano-like twinkle borne aloft by background pulsing voices and a torrent of hand claps. Gira's strummed guitar and paced narration are the center of "My Friend Thor" until the whole thing gets invaded by an exploded cuckoo clock and a soaring choir that would not be out of place on a Les Baxter record. This album is full of brilliant scene changes like that, which is what really distinguishes from the more Minimalist folk-raga quality of the other Angels' albums. Gira's crooning on the loping "On the Mountain" is downright pretty, with the supporting music swooping and diving in like birds.
The pinnacle for me is "Destroyer," a smoldering yet wistful tale of apocalyptic revenge being handed out by a goddess from the sun. It really captures what is so singularly beautiful about this group. To sing heartily about the Big Death without collapsing into corny Goth posturing is a feat of restraint and good songwriting. His spookier side gets voice on the frightening "Michael's White Hands" as does his take on misery in "To Live Through Someone." Relief comes with the truly odd but compelling sprechgesang cadence of "Simon is Stronger Than Us" underscores what is really special about this album: it manages to combine folkish songwriting with usually obtuse art music to make a complex yet wholly accessible beast. If my praise for this record seems a bit fawning, I can't help it, since I have been an ardent fan of Micheal Gira's intricately crafted work for some 15 years now, and this may be his best creation yet.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com