The 14th album from New York art-bruisers Swans is the third thumbscrew twist in a series of roughly two-hour, two-CD epics, joining 2012’sThe Seer and 2014’s To Be Kind as another journey into transcendence or tedium, depending on your tolerance for expressionist rock marathons. It’s also the final album with the line-up that’s given Swans more critical acclaim and commercial success than any other point in a nearly 35-year history — a would-be triumphant curtain call ultimately overshadowed by a recent sexual assault allegation aimed at leader Michael Gira.
For Swans fans, the 20-minute “Frankie M” – which approached the half-hour mark when opening their live shows throughout 2015 – alone makes this LP as essential as anything they’ve done in their current iteration. The slowly crashing waves of a drone suite eventually give way to the sledgehammering of a single note while Gira moans a layer of fog about drugs and violence. The drone-work feels lusher on this LP as a whole, with full cascades of piano and apocalyptic strings redolent of composers like Krzysztof Penderecki (courtesy of Brooklyn avant-garde cellist Okkyung Lee).
While their long, drawn-out, circling dark clouds remain potent, ultimately The Glowing Man is the weakest of the three powerful epics they’ve released since 2012. It can be muted and jammy, the build-ups are not as dramatic and it brings little in new ideas for Gira’s dead-eyed yowl. In fact the two most affecting vocal performances are by his wife, Jennifer Gira, who sings about sexual assault on the harrowing “When Will I Return?” and adds harmonies to the gorgeous, strangely optimistic, Leonard Cohen-esque closer “Finally, Peace.” But, still, those two songs, plus “Frankie M” and the absolutely crushing title track are more than an hour of Swans at their brutal best.