Angels of Light
We Are Him
I think it was a forgone conclusion with most that knew me as a child that I would one day end up in a cult. Shifty, friendless, bookish, D&D player, not remotely athletic in ability or interest - I was doomed to one day, glassy-eyed, accost a long-forgotten family member at the airport, unaware of who they were because of my short-circuited devotion to the Godhead. "Such a pity," they planned to say, "he was such a good boy. I knew the divorce would hit him hard but not that hard. Still, he looks good in saffron, and it appears a diet of curried lentils has saved him from the family gut, at least."
Fortunately, for the family honor, I never met a charismatic figure with Michael Gira's deep God voice, handing out tracksuits at a kiosk in the mall, or I'd have been there. Swans' Children of God album is meant to examine and lacerate the notions of cult membership, but the chants of "Save my soul! Damn you to hell!" in his baritone fury over the most ornate clockwork menace recorded totally made me want to shave my head and join up the International Brotherhood of the Swan. That feeling has never really left me.
On this fifth outing in the ever exquisite Angels of Light, Gira steers closer to Children of God than he does the sylvan darkness of the other Angels records. Not that I don't like them, in fact 2001's How I Loved You is in my top 20 all-time favorites, but this scratches the old itch of my dormant devotion. "My Brother's Man" slaps you like a hammer, with a maddening hum like a stalled engine or a chained hornet knifing through, or if The Bad Seeds were allowed to germinate and grow into some kind of monster tree, as Gira bellows and chants "I am the God of this fucking land!" with messianic hotness. "We Are Him" is a gospel according to Michael, with a John Lee Hooker lockstep and a crack bar band swagger.
It's not all snake-handling and cabal talk, there are also some great slow smoldering numbers that bear as big a wallop without as loud a smack. "Star Chaser" is like somnambulant R&B, a slow prom groove of the damned, and the simmering menace of "Sometimes I Dream I'm Hurting You" tiptoes in as quiet as one can with cloven hooves.
"The Man We Left Behind" is a prime example of how Gira can mix gravity with airlessness, his folksy croon floating on a bed of acoustic balladry deconstructed and reassembled into crystalline precision. Sometimes I think Angels of Light is like what country rock will sound like when it is approximated by robots surviving the apocalypse, and I love it for that feeling. It has an undeniable intimacy in it - it's practically whispering in your ear, yet it is vacuum sealed. You are not getting in, lest you muck up the works with your bumbling ways. Partway through "Not Here/Not Now" the song turns into a scintillating carousel, alternately wobbling off its mooring and righting itself as Gira and crew chant the title.
It's a beautiful ride that leads into "Joseph's Song" a desert nocturne about, I think, the stranglehold of a corrosive family member (or maybe that's just what he's trying to make me think with his cult mind-control techniques), that turns into a rather pleasant jaunt on the pier. You saunter along happily until you realize the pier juts out over a river of blood, and you are hip-boot deep in the disjointed ur-swamp blues of the title track. This languid lope into darkness is key to understanding the Angels of Light; it's an unflinching way to navigate an unavigable world. Now that you can see the truth in the way of the light, I'd like you to read these pamphlets and sign our roster, and a representative will visit shortly to see if you are ready for the next level.
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