In the middle of a woodland there is a lake with a hollow oblong of grass separating the trees and the water. On the part of this clearing furthest from the lake entrance are the remains of a bonfire, which had stood at 20 foot before it was even lit. It had gone up a good two hours beforehand, and it remains waist–high, throwing out enough heat to make the clear and cold night durable from six feet away. I put down the chair I had carried along the track, circled the fire once, watching it from all angles, then sat, cracking open the first of several beers and putting my headphones on.
Aware of Swan’s reputation but unaware of their music, I bought My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky with an open mind as to what it would sound like, let alone how well it would fit into the scope of being a winter album. Going on reputation alone, I anticipated 70 minutes of vortexing feedback. But instead I found it to be a subtle and diverse listen, with intensity used as part of rather than instead of songwriting. With a shared dichotomy of destructive ability and beauty, Swans have the same hypnotic effect as an open fire. This first occurred to me during opening track, and continued as the intro of overlapping bells gives way to a listen that is characterised by intensity but not heaviness, its cyclical and climatic riffs and lyrics a suitable companion to staring into shifting flames and mountains of crumbling embers. Experimental to the point of being genre–free (‘no-wave’ apparently), this is an album full of juxtapositions, the mellow acoustic temper of second track Reeling The Liars In at odds with ‘We are burning them in a pile. The only true thing, the place to begin, is to burn up the liar pile’. With hummed background vocals, it even began to sound a bit like a campfire song, raising a morbid chuckle on my part.
This album possesses a brooding menace, lurking in the shadows, the volume slowly building. As the overdriven guitar comes in on top of the dulcimer and background vocals in Jim, and as the big bass groove re–enters after the brief silence at the end of No Words/No Thoughts, and as the lullaby feel of You Fucking People Make Me Sick descends into atonal piano rumbles and klaxon war horns, I expect to see the machete–wielder step out of the shadows just before slicing me to the thrapple (always wanted to use that word). But each time the danger fades away, to lurk anew in the dark. Despite these sinister qualities, however, this is not an album characteristic of winter.
Several tracks groove hard, particularly No Words/No Thoughts, Jim, Inside Madeline and Eden Prison, and those that don’t tend to sound quite warm, such as the echoing guitars of Little Mouth. The lyrics centre on escape through destruction and cycles of life spiralling downwards towards extinction; this sounds like an apt soundtrack for a season of death, survival and indifference, but the lyrics also include revenge, self–hatred and misanthropy (You Fucking People Make Me Sick) and entrapment, sexual desire and escape (Madeline, My Birth, Little Mouth); these are themes of the self, rather than of something like widened philosophical awareness or escapism through acceptance of insignificance. This is not an album that stalks through winter, but instead through the dark.
After the album fell into silence, I sat there for a bit, contemplating the mumbling embers, the stars, and whatever it was stuck between my teeth. When I got up and began to walk away, I really began to realise how cold it was and how protected I had been by the fire. My father hadn’t guided me up a rope to the sky, but had absorbed me in flames and music.