Angels of Light take the leadoff Soundcheck review in the August issue of the Wire Magazine. The CD version of We Are Him streets on August 28th, double gatefold vinyl will follow in late September.
The Wire, August 07
Soundcheck - This month's selected CDs and vinyl
By Keith Moline
The fifth album by Michael Gira's Angels Of Light achieves its mythical depth and range with trance-fuelled abandon.
Angels Of Light
We Are Him
Young God CD
Michael Gira continues to suffer from having each new album, each new fugitive direction he takes, compared with his early work, produced in just a few short years in the early 80s. While his group Swans made some of the slowest, heaviest and most grindingly relentless music ever created on albums like Filth (1983) and Cop (1984), for more than a decade of their lifespan - Gira disbanded the group in 1997 - their work was multifaceted, sweeping and often acoustic. As for his later work under the Angels Of Light banner, the unremitting moroseness that Gira has often been accused of - perhaps not without justification when you consider lines like "God damn anyone that says a kind word" (from 1988's "God Damn The Sun") - has for the most part been replaced by honest simplicity and generosity of spirit.
For this fifth Angels Of Light album, Gira has again recruited acid pastoralists Akron/Family to realise his songs, which are usually composed on acoustic guitar. Some of the musicians featured on early releases New Mother (1999) and How I Loved You (2001) have returned to flesh out We Are Him's arrangements. Gira has in the past bemoaned his difficulty in resisting the temptation to obsess over sonic details, but those who found the last couple of albums a little too dry and sparse will surely enjoy this one's lusher textures. We Are Him is the most widescreen Angles album to date without ever spilling over into the production excesses of Swans; further, it retains the freshness and immediacy that is a hallmark of Akron/Family's work. Nothing feels superfluous; the instrumentation, though compellingly mercurial, in never intrusive or overwrought, allowing Gira's songwriting to command centre stage.
And a superb set of songs it is. His early work explored the narratives opened up between each repetition of a single riff or line of lyric, and how abjection, violence and blank nihilism could multiply exponentially with each hammerblow drum kick or solemn acoustic strum. The younger Gira may have been loath to admit to any
weakness - by his own account he could be a nasty piece of work - but at the heart of all his music lay vulnerability and a longing for transcendence. Such yearning was heightened rather than crushed by his monolithic musical constructs.
The difference with We Are Him is that he has become adept at expressing it all with such candour, precision and economy. Certainly repetition still plays its part, as on the opening "Black River Song", in which a monstrous blues riff cycles around on itself until the album's first chord change, which arrives about ten seconds before the song ends. But the repetition has nothing to do with bludgeoning monomania; it's all about trance-fulled abandon and release.
Gira's words continue to conflate opposites of sin and redemption, good and evil, hope and despair. In the past this bordered on the gratuitous, a blunt undercutting of positive potential by sheer boundless cynicism. But here it feels like an attempt to synthesise something strong and true, as if they aren't opposites but mirror
"Black River runs, beneath the ground/Receiving the days that feed the night/Black River flows through the belly of everyone/Fading, growing, fading, flowing."
In Gira's world, the breath of artistic inspiration, the memory of departed friends and family, personifications of love and cruelty, vengeful and forgiving gods, all
of these intermingle, coursing through the land, the body and even the blood, though he is never explicit as to whether this is cause for celebration or terror:
"There is no place to run from Joseph's truth/His hands are on your throat but feeding you" ("Joseph's Song").
If this all sounds like serious stuff, you're right. Yet there are some sparkling pop songs on We Are Him. The title track is built on a joyous glam rock stomp, bursting through a folk-drone intro and never letting up, while pastel guitars open and close "The Man We Left Behind", a waltz time confessional that crosses gossamer Byrdsian Country rock with the offhand gravitas of Leonard Cohen. "Not Here/Not Now" rides out on some inspired Western guitar twang and "Sometimes I Dream I'm Hurting You" features goofy Nuggets-styles garage rock organ, while "Sunflower's Here To Stay" even boasts a coda that recalls The Turtles' "Happy Together" (though the title might indicate that Gira actually had The Beach Boys in mind).
Generally, though, the mood is one of calm reflection. In the past Gira's famed intensity has felt a bit too pat, his victories too easily won; here, the power of a song like "Star Chaser" is heightened by the restraint of its arrangement. It's another wrenching waltz that recasts autobiographical detail into a kind of modern tragic folklore. Gira has characterised himself as "the type of person that
immediately abstracts experience as it occurs" (in The Wire 233), and it's this gift (or curse, perhaps) that imbues his work with a near mythical depth and range. Nothing on We Are Him will startle like old classics such as "Raping A Slave" or "A Screw", but these songs will get under your skin (to use a recurring Gira image) and remain with you for a long time to come.
Footage of "Nations" from 2001.