Angels of Light’s Latest Album, We Are Him, charts on CMJ.

We Are Him debuts at #73 on the Top 200 of CMJ’s national radio charts in its first week.  This is the fifth album from Angels Of Light, the vehicle for Michael Gira since he disbanded his Swans in 1997. The album was recorded and produced by Gira at Trout Recording and Seizure’s Palace studios in Brooklyn with Akron/Family laying down some initial basic tracks which were then fleshed out by an extensive cast of characters including many old friends and some new ones; it was mixed at Trout.

We Are Him is released on Young God Records August 20. Press response has been even more fervid as usual as you’ll see from the latest clips to come in which are included below. I do hope you’ll consider covering this artist and his latest release with a feature or CD review.

With We Are Him Gira’s achieved yet another high point in a career filled with musical achievements, any one of which would count as the attainment of a lifetime for anyone else (Swans’ Children Of God, Cop, Soundtracks For the Blind).  The first two Angels Of Light albums New Mother and How I Loved You saw Gira exploring subtle, more nuanced songwriting and the influence of primitive American rural music as well as lush, natural orchestrations.  On the third, Everything Is Good Here/ Please Come Home he added an enormous feral wallop to the proceedings. 2005’s Other People found him mastering more melodic, some might even say “poppy” writing (collaborating with Akron/Family) and while We Are Him similarly boasts strong tunes Michael’s upped the ante precipitously in terms of sonic innovation and brute visceral power to yield yet another masterpiece.

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Michael Gira still explores the drones and grinding rhythms that he recorded with legendary art-punk band Swans, but on this fifth album with collective Angels of Light, the singer/songwriters focuses on whiplash juxtapositions of sound and style. He cuts and pastes his skewed vision of a Nick Cave-flavored Americana where mandolin and hammer dulcimer rumble with a devilish mariachi band down a dark backstreet. Avant enigmas (and labelmates) Akron/Family provide consistent backing, but it’s Gira’s array of violins, “krautabilly” electric guitar, acccordion, and choral vocals that turn the tunes inside out. Rob O’Connor/Spin September

 

As the multi-instrumentalist mastermind behind Eighties post-industrial titans Swans, Michael Gira influenced countless metal bands, from Godflesh to Napalm Death to Pelican. When Swans folded in 1997, Gira dialed back his former group’s legendary volume, added acoustic elements, and emerged as the quieter, though no-less-heavy, Angels of Light. On Angels’ fifth album, Gira’s repetitive, grinding riffs support his derisive vocals and morbid musings. And like the last couple Earth records, We Are Him meanders like a Southwestern death march and employs a few non-traditional metal instruments. But if anyone can make violin, trombone, and hammer dulcimer sound downright doomy, it’s gonna be Gira. Brandon Geist/Revolver October

 

D: I know that voice. Swans!

C: Yeah, it’s Michael Gira’s new album. It’s got quite a sound-the Akron/Family dudes are all on here, but so are the old Gira hands like Bill Rieflin and Christoph Hahn. Layers of stuff, perfectly arranged: guitars, banjo, piano, flute, strings, accordion, melodica, hammer dulcimer.

D: [listening to “Promise of Water”] Still menacing and grand after all theseyears.

C: It’s.ceremonial, melodic, yearning.[“The Man We Left Behind”] is like a slow Johnny Cash waltz, just beautiful.

D: [Listening to “My Brother’s Man”] And he can still punish at will.

C: “Not Here/Not Now” throbs with life; and this (“Joseph’s Song”) has the most unexpected Gira move ever: it goes uptempo into a trombone-led jamboree.

D: A Giramboree!

C: [laughs] Like the Devendra album, his opens up so much new territory. Unbelievable, wonderful to hear, especially coming from a veteran artist. Another album of the year contender that demands further examination. C&D Arthur Magazine #26

 

     A year ago, writing for Perfect Sound Forever, Brian Hell buried himself in a series of questions about lyrics with Michael Gira. The Angels of Light Sing “Other People”– the fifth album from Gira’s prime project since Swans’ end in 1997– had just been released. The most telling question and answer refer to “Simon Is Stronger Than Us”, a playful song with Akron/Family, then Gira’s backing band. Hell inquired if the line “And Francis did that, too, though Francis trolled London and made no excuse” was a reference to Irish
painter Francis Bacon: “Well yes, I am referring to Francis Bacon there, very astute of you,” the singer replied. Of course Gira would reference Bacon, call him by name even: Articulating with screams, something Bacon specialized in while painting, has been paramount to Gira’s aesthetic for a quarter century now. On We Are Him– his sixth and arguably most engaging album as Angels of Light– he lands some of the best of those complete releases. Gira seems more empowered and commanding than he has in a decade, the emotions he’s conveying coming in huge fits that, like Bacon’s, are as powerful as they are draining. He’s backed by one of the most impressive guest lists of the year (Akron/Family providing the basic tracks, plus new friends or longtime collaborators Larkin Grimm, David Garland, and Bill Rieflin), but one must understand that this is Gira’s album. He lets it all out and wastes little time: Four seconds into the colossal opening track, “Black River Song”, for instance, a thick electric bass knock pumps against every heavy drum hit and compacted guitar sinew: “Black river runs/ beneath this ground/ Black river flows forever/ But he makes no sound.” The chorus– some variation of the series, “Fading, growing, breathing, flowing,” sung by Gira and female voices– is sinister, challenging and almost sexy.
     A track later, a rocking-chair rhythm moans beneath Gira’s snarl. He’s rarely sounded this foreboding: Prodded by a scathing, raw violin drone and a daring chorus of sirens, it’s an escalating dirge for the collapse of society, full of floods, blood and mouths too stupid to scream. Beneath an electric guitar twitter, heavy drums and furious strings on “My Brother’s Man”, Gira hands down these imprecations: “I walk through the thick black
mud. I walk with my brother’s blood. I see with my brother’s eye. I scream at my brother’s sky.” Swans, anyone?
     But this record isn’t so simple. “My Brother’s Man” notes that the brother is capable of murder and so is Gira. But it embraces the relationship, vowing to crush god “in my fucking hand” for the sake of fraternal legacy. It’s protective, triumphant. The subsequent “This Is Not Here”– a dark duet with Gira’s wife, Siobhan Duffy– offers the lovers choices and endings: Will the world steal the sun, or will the lovers touch the light? “Will you dream that we breathe?” It’s not about anger or fatalism. In 1984, Gira screamed about burning and eating hearts on “Raping a Slave”; in 1995, he sang about supplication to God while witnessing the fragility of the world during “Our Love Lies”. We Are Him is a near-perfect, totally committed summation hammering at the same unresolved archetypes from someone who’s now a father.
     That’s not to say that this album is without its share of misses, or at least the occasional artistic anomie that has, by now, become a requisite of Gira’s work. Those songs aren’t better left unsung: “Goodbye Mary Lou” has a purpose, its rhythm an uneasy country twitter that leave Gira little room to do much but say exactly what he’s feeling. The first verse ends “Mary Lou, I renounce you”; the second, “Mary Lou, fuck you”; and in closing, the indiscretions of young anger that have been boiling for a lifetime come
crashing down with a wink: “Oh Mary Lou, I forgive you.”

     We Are Him is ultimately about getting by, about trying to survive with a family and a faith at a time when “the dogs…howl as the street fills with blood.” Gira, at 53, continues to evolve, to challenge himself, to question his beliefs. As long as he does that, every song won’t roar like the perfect first two tracks of We Are Him or have the brilliant gospel insistence of the title track. The slight, charming chamber pop he tries won’t always work as it does on “Sunflower’s Here to Stay”, a song that pushes for persistence. Luckily, doing otherwise has never been an option for Gira. Grayson Currin/ Pitchforkmedia.com 8/14/07

 

     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 Cook/OutsideLeft.com 8/23

 

     Despite Michael Gira’s tendency to pen lyrics that veer toward abstraction, it’s obvious they’re rooted in personal observation. Gira has the uncanny ability to take the deepest, rawest experiences and dramatize them without cushions of cheap poetics or lazy signifiers. Obscuring the line between individualism and universality (assuming either actually “exist”), his lyrical approach occasionally reaches the point of fantasy, stories that read less like a personal diary and more like fables with ambiguous morals. Sometimes, though, you’re simply left with sublime imagery, and no matter how hard you try to figure out Gira’s “true” place within the lyrics, it becomes clear that the recurring themes – violence, darkness, transcendence, redemption, etc. – are far more important than individual sentiments. But as interesting as it is to try and rationalize Gira’s lyrics, a task I feel beyond the scope of a review and perhaps immaterial to the larger scheme, Angels of Light have so many arresting qualities that it’s just as easy to surrender to the music as to be intellectually engaged with it.

     Always beginning the process with an acoustic guitar and lyrics, Gira’s methodology is to then layer the tracks with musical flourishings, guiding musicians while being mindful of the subject matter. Yet despite dressing them in lush theatrics and complex musicianship, a feeling of isolation persists. With nearly every moment characterized, defined, and articulated in relation to the lyrics and guitar, the added sounds become transparent. Despite the many aesthetic benefits of such an approach, the songs are occasionally suffocated by the ornamentation, as if the music’s breathing room is stifled by the songwriting template. I imagine these tracks – or any Angels of Light tracks – would be just as, if not more, convincing in their original, acoustic guitar-and-voice incarnations (like the breathtaking solo versions of tracks from Sings ‘Other People’ heard on the limited I Am Singing to You From My Room LP), as the music that’s supposed to support the lyrics sometimes serves to distract from them.

     Despite my aesthetic bias, however, the musical accompaniment on We Are Him is brilliantly executed. Bringing drums back in a compelling way – Sings Other People featured almost no percussion – Gira enlists Akron/Family and multiple guest musicians to craft something more visceral this time. The emphasis is still on the lyrics and overall texture, but We Are Him hits with more precision. Tracks like “Black River Song” and “Promise of Water” are among the most striking Gira has ever written (Swans included), while “Not Here/Not Now” and “The Man We Left Behind” showcase the intricacy of which the Angels of Light have already proven so capable. What holds it all together, of course, is Gira’s singular vocals. With a timbre that sounds like no other, we should be thankful that Angels of Light are inimitable. Any missed notes or awkward intonations, most notably on “My Brother’s Man,” are overshadowed by Gira’s unrestrained confidence, his lyrical urgency, his unique inflections.

     Admitting never knowing when to “stop” adding sounds to his songs, Gira’s current interest with Angels of Light is to craft “good songs” first and then build and build on them. It’s a solid approach that has produced amazing outcomes. Still, I can’t help but wonder what kind of soundworld Gira would enter if he incorporated, say, the sonic manipulations heard on the captivating The Body Lovers/Body Haters, or perhaps if aleatory elements were given a chance – anything fresh, really. Gira is an artist who’s relevant because he’s always searching for and finding new approaches, and now that he’s clearly refined his songwriting abilities to the point of recycling musical ideas, perhaps his interest in staking out new territory would be especially beneficial for Angels of Light. That said, We Are Him is not faulted for these reasons. Despite not being my personal favorite, the album may in fact be Gira’s most poignant statement to date, one that succinctly encapsulates Angels of Lights’ every driving thrust since New Mother. And for someone who doesn’t even know what chords he’s playing, I’d say the musical achievements of Angels of Light are as equally telling as Gira’s seminal influence on underground music. Mr. P/TinyMixTapes.com 8/25

     Michael Gira (pronounced jeh-rah, not jeer-uh or geer-uh) has always been a man of extremes. Whether it’s his vomit-inducing death blues of Swans or the high-end lo-fi of Angles of Light, he’s never been a man to tread the lukewarm land of the tepid. Once I remove the CD from the tray I’m stricken with the sight of Gira himself giving a morose -but politely so-stare that only hints at his capability of sin and loathing. The record itself does not divert from that general vibe. Gira’s charisma is one of disgust and solipsism so blunt it makes Nietzsche a shoe-in for any high school cheerleading squad. It’s certainly a shame that Mr. M gets little acknowledgment beyond his achievements in noise-mongering and pig fucking, as he has not shied away from being host to the lighter side of manmade sound within the confines of his remote log cabin of unfathomable sorrows.
     Gira could serve as the teacher of a slew of budding college folksters who are hardly content trying to enlighten/seduce the beer-soaked Greek hordes and their progressive messiahs that assign X00 pages of Chomsky and call it learning. This is not to say that Gira is a bona fide folk musician, rather, he takes helpings of such supposedly introspective genres with more sincerely emotional and repetitive ones (i.e. blues) and sprinklings of zesty kraut rock and kneads the shit out of them with the calloused knuckles that are his droning croon and his ever so charming artistic vision.
     With the help of some colleagues that have had their hands in the work of Robyn Hitchcock, Ministry, REM, Alice Donut, Akron/Family and Gira’s own Swans, We Are Him is a blissful affair that is just as shimmering and rich as it is heartless and puzzling. Gira’s production is intricately layered and clean. While a more indulgent mastermind would make a megalomaniacal catastrophe out of all the strings, horns, keys, robotic rhythms, “chick vocs” and other added effects, Gira is rather skilled in arrangement and finding a use for as much and as little as a given song needs.
     The opener “Black River Song” is Euro post-punk within the confines of coffee house acoustics. It’s followed by the dark road ballad “Promise of Water” in which Gira beckons “when you open your mouth you’re too stupid to scream.” What follows after the establishing moods is nonetheless winding, dramatic and uncertain as Gira and his minstrels make surreal mincemeat out of artistically inclined rock and pop music’s conventions. “My Brother’s Man” is perhaps the most rock-tinged track. Some of the quieter songs are the most ominous, like “Sometimes I Dream I’m Hurting You.” “Goodbye Mary Lou” is a menacing country song of the likes not seen since the genre’s vindication as a contender alongside teen pop.
     With just the Swans under his belt, Gira may or may not have had to hypothetically deal with his legacy as misanthropic brutalizer of the highest order since Boyd Rice-and I mean that lovingly. But it goes without saying that Mr. Gira is an aesthetic journeyman, and with Angels of Light, Gira is a kind of mean son of bitch who can belt out a pretty song like the rest of ’em. Chris Morgan/Treblezine.com 8/27

 

     After a quarter century career fronting Swans, releasing barge-loads of releases on his Young God label and penning a thorny handful of Angels Of Light albums, it feels suspiciously like Michael Gira’s just getting started. The 53-year old songwriter’s latest effort, We Are Him, the Angels’ fifth album, and best since 2003’s brilliant Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home, weaves recurring images of water, blood, mud, rivers, viscera and our inner children into a gurgling, pretty ‘n’ intense rock sermon.
     Gira’s smart, startling parables and tales cut through all those elegant, teeming, at times surprisingly playful (and always intense) sounds. A superb lyricist-go back and check out “God Damn The Sun”-is showing himself to be a great storyteller as well. Though that’s nothing new either: Gira’s also published the story collection The Consumer and had a short piece in the important mid-’80s anthology Just Another Asshole #6 . How does he approach writing stories for the page, as opposed to these gorgeous stories for song? “I have no idea how or why I write,” he says:
     “I don’t write stories anymore, and I find the stories that I did publish-years ago now-simply execrable, the work of a loathsome creep, who is now buried. I killed him myself of course, and he deserved to die. My only regret is that I didn’t torture him mercilessly before I offed him, but that would have been self-defeating. There’s a dense smooth stone in the center of my head that occasionally glows intensely with music, illuminating the black inside of my otherwise empty cranium. In general, I’m sure that I must be an automaton. I wait constantly for the creature that sometimes enters me and speaks through me to take things over. He’s been with me since I was a child. He’s about three feet tall, always naked and sports an angry red erection at the most inopportune moments-for instance when we’re in a bank, or at the doctor’s office, or on the bus or subway. He wears bells on his ankles and never stops kicking his feet up in the air. Silence is unknown to me. But, he sprinkles glitter on the ground before me as I walk, and when I sleep at night he crawls inside my head and dreams for me.
     “Life is good!” Brandon Stosuy/PaperThinWalls.com

 

Music fans of a certain age, you may recognize Michael Gira’s singing as the foreboding voice behind Swans. A whole new generation of indie rockers has Gira and his label Young Gods to thank for introducing the world to artists like the protean Akron/Family (who back him here) and the hirsute troubadour Devendra Banhart. Gira has traded in much of the noise of his earlier work for acoustic instruments, bleak country waltzes and apocalyptic gospel. Something about this music is cold and ultimately distancing, but Gira remains a singer and poet of darkness. – John Adamian/Hartford Advocate 8/9

 

     The tone of Michael Gira’s voice roughly resonates at the same frequency as the timbre emitted by a wayward preacher, frothy and bittered by the fruit of some unknown demon. You’d think with a body of work that includes the catalogue of torrential 80s noise-mongers Swans, he’d have exorcised those devils by now. However, as We Are Him proves, Gira might be a little softer around the edges, but he’s still got some shred of indecency within that can only be sated by another round of apocryphal American hymnals only likely from the likes of Gira.

     What We Are Him lacks in abrasiveness, it makes up for through the album’s mostly grim mood. Gira and the Angels teeter between graceful-maybe even pastoral-tales rooted in the tradition of the Southern Gothic sin, and grinding sludgefeasts that will certainly please adherents of Gira’s manic side. The dulcimer-wrought gentility of a tune like “The Man We Left Behind” is offset by the neurosis of “My Brother’s Man,” which matches searing guitars with a surreal Gira sermon. “Sometimes I Dream I’m Hurting You” perhaps best encapsulates the interior struggle between violence and tranquility these tunes face; the song begins in narcotic penance, only to catch the scent of blood and begin a writhing death-stomp that drives the song into the ground.

     With a foot in primordial folk and blues and the other stomping out the cadences of Pentecostal sermonizing, the darker, more vicious side of Gira’s Angels evokes the same terrain Nick Cave has honed so well. But if Cave offers an elegance about his iniquities, Gira seems to prefer his draped away from the glare of accessibility. The Appalachian overtones of a song like “Good Bye Mary Lou” further lend to the maintenance of a serrated quality passed down from the old days of sex, love and control. Meanwhile, the moodier pieces drone in depression and drown the listener in the shapes that hide in the shadows. Even when We Are Him shows a glimpse of happiness or hope, it’s a sort of ominous happiness, a rigid hope that can’t escape the paranoia that sees the darkness around every cloud’s silver lining.

     Which, obviously, is to be expected from these Angels. It’s the manner of projection, a trait constantly in flux when it comes to Michael Gira, that gives offering to the pagan gods of the unexpected. We Are Him presents its tithe and revels in dawning dusk freak-gospel, evening folk and scrums until the morning light spills over across the altar. As always with Gira, the weaknesses of these tunes are its strengths; charming honesty or deviance? Just depends on who is judging and where they stand. Because when it’s all said and done though, this might be Gira’s finest sermon since How I Loved You. Pablo Rivers/CDReviews.com 8/21

Author: James McQuiston

Ph.D. in Political Science, Kent State University. I have been the editor at NeuFutur / neufutur.com since I was 15. Looking for new staff members all the time; email me if you are interested. Thanks!

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