Fabled experimental rock band Swans head in a new direction on 'leaving meaning.'

The 15th studio album from the legendary post-rock group continues its lengthy string of successes.


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New York-based post-rock outfit Swans are a group known for change.

They are known not only for their constantly rotating cast of members throughout the band’s mind-blowing 37-year-long lifespan, but also for their constant ability to redefine their sound. Their 1983 debut “Filth” is known as a brutal, confrontational and defining moment in the no wave movement. In 1987, they released “Children of God,” which shifted the band into more of a gothic rock direction. Nine years later, they changed their sound yet again, releasing its first post-rock album, “Soundtracks for the Blind.” It’s credited as a masterpiece, an album many consider mandatory listening not only for prospective post-rock fans, but also for fans of rock in general.

So, it only makes sense that Swans would reinvent themselves yet again on their newest album, “leaving meaning.”

Michael Gira, Swans frontman and only constant member, has pushed the band back toward their early ‘90s output sonically, featuring more neofolk and gothic influences on this new album while attempting to maintain most of the elements from Swans' post-2010 work. It’s a welcome change from a band known for welcome changes. On “leaving meaning.,” Gira and company scale back the enormity of Swans' last two records and add just enough folk to give the album a haunting beauty when it’s at its best.

Straight from the get-go of “leaving meaning.,” Swans tips their hand. The album’s first true song “Annaline” is noticeably more subdued than Swans’ previous material, with its dulcet tones and soft ambiance. In usual fashion, Gira’s deep voice cuts through the recording, but it’s noticeably calmer this time around.

Other songs, like the fourth track “Amnesia” give this album “things I shouldn’t be listening to alone at 2 a.m.” status. A minute and a half through the otherwise standard folk song, Gira’s lone acoustic guitar stops, and seconds later we are greeted with loud, scratchy but most of all terrifying violins. This is all accompanied by Gira’s booming voice yelling “Amnesia” for 10 seconds. Soon the song returns to normal, but when it happens again about halfway through the track, you realize that frantic bit is actually the chorus. The anticipation and build-up this creates asserts “Amnesia” as one of the single most unsettling songs I’ve ever heard.

The sixth song “Sunf-----” isn’t quite as scary, but the high-pitched vocals, which sit under the mix, evoke cult-like imagery, and Gira’s awkward vocal delivery on this track doesn’t make things any less upsetting. About halfway through the song, after a lengthy single-note drone, the frightening moments from the first half of the track are abandoned for a pounding drum beat and Gira chanting, “Believer, believer, believer, believe or not,” which only adds to the cult-like nature of the track.

It’s on tracks like “Sunf-----” and “Amnesia” where Swans are at their best, with their dynamic buildups and haunting textures. Unfortunately, not all of “leaving meaning.” is that good.

My only real grievance with "leaving meaning." is its tendency to drop the dynamic compositions and buildups Swans are known for, instead opting for boring nothingness. "Cathedrals of Heaven" is this album's worst offender, a track that doesn't really do anything in its lengthy eight minute runtime. Multiple times while listening I felt myself yearning for a signature Swans movement, only to be greeted with more of the same monotonous drone. Luckily most of the album avoids this issue, but it's present enough to greatly diminish this otherwise incredible album.

With "leaving meaning.," Swans have continued their long streak of successful records, even if the album can become a bit tedious at times. It's mind-blowing that Gira still has the creative ability he does almost four decades since the start of the band. Through Gira's vision, Swans has become one of the most consistent and loved experimental bands of all time, and "leaving meaning." does nothing to change that.

Edited by Joe Cross | jcross@themaneater.com

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