Imagine transcribing an incremental play-by-play of a Swans album. It might read like a snuff film recap. Here, for instance, is how you might describe “The Glowing Man,” the penultimate track from the band’s 14th album of the same name: three-and-a-half minutes of unsettling ambient noise; 30 seconds of wordless, satanic throat-singing as the drums crash in; two minutes of Michael Gira babbling “No! No! No! No! No! No! Yes! No!!”; then five minutes of relentless, cacophonous rhythmic lurches—and that’s just the first 10 minutes.
The Glowing Man, Swans’ latest opus of immensity, makes immoderation into an art form: Three songs stretch past the 20-minute mark, full of the colossal doom and widescreen tension-and-release that made 2012’s The Seer and 2014’s To Be Kind such mighty late-career statements. The best of The Glowing Man encompasses the band’s three-decade career arc: “The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black” reaches all the way back to 1983, lifting lyrics Michael Gira wrote for Sonic Youth and recasting them in a jittery death-groove climax. “Frankie M,” a dark ode to addiction that’s anchored recent setlists, catches a similar glimpse of what Gira refers to as “something of the infinite.”
The trouble is that on The Glowing Man, length and excess exist essentially for their own sakes; at this point, Gira and co. seem to be making a two-hour double album because they’ve forgotten that they can make any other kind. The Glowing Man is the most formless of these records—light on groove but long on drifting passages that require leviathan feats of patience to endure. Swans operates in unflinching extremes—it’s written into the group’s DNA. But releasing three double albums in four years (six hours of music, all combined) is both an act of extreme generosity and of punishing indulgence.
The Glowing Man has been billed as “the final recording from this configuration of Swans.” On the solemn “People Like Us”—not to be confused with the Talking Heads song of the same name, though miraculously matched to the brevity of that track—Swans offers a glimmer of a farewell. “We’re drifting goodbye / On a rust-colored cloud,” Gira sings over restrained creaks and orchestral crashes, demanding that “fallopian friends / Abandon us now.”
Some will. The Glowing Man’ promotional cycle will be an uncomfortable and unusual one, with Larkin Grimm’s four-month-old rape allegations against Gira fresh in mind. The details of that accusation are disturbing, perhaps enough to turn away some listeners for good. Those fans will be missing out on a record that’s as uncompromising as Swans’ best work from this era, but hardly as essential.