The Swans reunion is an unambiguously great thing: A band of grizzled veterans channeling all the forces of darkness and playing half-hour symphonies to the abyss, staring all their deepest impulses in the face and submitting to them entirely. A Swans show, these days, is a scorching, purifying, life-affirming experience, and a new Swans album isn’t much different. But even with all the power that the reconstituted Swans have at their fingertips, I’ve felt the slightest twinge of loss everytime I’ve heard their monolithic clang. That loss is this: At least for now, Angels Of Light are done. From the time Swans broke up to the time they got back together, frontman Michael Gira led Angels Of Light, a band that brought the enormity of that old Swans pound to old, ancestral American musics. Angels Of Light weren’t a folk band or a country band, and their noise was nearly as elemental as that of Swans. But even at their grandest, they still had a weird campfire-folk simplicity to their songs, and that was a powerful thing. My first prolonged exposure to Gira was an Angels Of Light show in a tiny Baltimore room, back when Devendra Banhart was both an opening act and an Angel Of Light, and I left that show with my knees shaking. Gira — barrel-chested, spotless white cowboy hat pulled low over his face — came closer than any singer I’ve ever heard to Johnny Cash at his most mythic, and he did it while pushing the music of our collective American memory into dark, strange places. That band was something. But listening to Refractory Obdurate, the new Wovenhand album, that twinge of loss is becoming more of a distant echo. We might not have the Angels Of Light right now, but we do have Swans. And now, we have Wovenhand too.
Actually, we’ve had Wovenhand for years; I’ve just been too shortsighted to realize it. Wovenhand started in 2001, as a side project of the muscular Denver alt-country band 16 Horsepower, and they’re now seven albums deep into a career that has outlasted 16 Horsepower’s. I’m looking forward to going back and exploring the six albums I missed, because Refractory Obdurate is a monster. The term “alt-country” appears on the first line of Wovenhand’s Wikipedia page, and it’s not entirely inaccurate; the band carries the weight of country and rockabilly history in many of their arrangements. Mostly, though, that word’s appearance makes a case for how useless and arbitrary genre distinctions can be, especially when the people making the music show no interest in adhering to any genre’s set of rules. I might’ve never given Refractory Obdurate its due if Converge frontman Jacob Bannon hadn’t released it on his Deathwish Inc. imprint, a label that’s made a name for cranking out adventurous and unhinged punk and hardcore and metal. And yet the label is a perfect home for the Wovenhand of Refractory Obdurate, who bring levels of darkness and mercilessness and grandeur that most metal bands could never hope to match.
Amidst whatever elements of alt-country you might hear on the album, you’ll also find ancestral folk-blues desolation, feverish basement-hardcore abandon, bilious sludge-metal power-fantasy enormity, evocative film-score majesty, pigfuck scrape, blurting postpunk grind, prog-rock sweep. There’s no twang in frontman David Eugene Edwards’s voice; instead, he’s got a grand and faraway carnival-barker wail that reminds me, just slightly, of one of his past tourmates, Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan. There’s some Gira in there, too, and some Birthday Party-era Nick Cave, and some late-Lungfish Daniel Higgs, and some recent-vintage Mark Lanegan. At a certain point, though, you stop mentally breaking the songs on this album down into their component parts, into possible genres or influences, and you just let them wash over you and fill you up.
The best example might be the “Salome,” one of the longer songs on the album. It starts out as an eerie minor-key goth churn with some heavy rumble on the toms. Guitarist Neil Keener, formerly of the great post-hardcore band Planes Mistaken For Stars, plays an Eastern-accented distorto-riff that could be country-folk, but it could just as easily be metal or, like, Dick Dale-style instrumental surf guitar. There’s a glassy keyboard in there, too, that sounds like Dead Can Dance. Edwards starts intoning grand, portentous noise about “the father” and “the dancing girl,” his voice a weathered boom so buried in the mix that you can’t necessarily tell exactly what he’s saying. Gradually, everything gets louder and more frenetic. Soon enough, Edwards is chanting ritualistically and then yelling, the guitars are getting more and more unhinged, the synths are in full windswept-drone mode. The song starts to fill up your vision, blacking out everything out. It doesn’t have much of a tune, and you might not remember how it goes when it’s over, but it’ll still leave you gasping by the time it draws itself to a close at the 5:20 mark. (Even the long songs here aren’t long; they pack these big vistas of feeling into something resembling standard song length.) But it doesn’t matter what happens to the melody because the feeling lingers, and anyway when the song ends there’s another dark journey to embark on.
It’s weird listening to Refractory Obdurate in the early-spring sunshine. This is midnight music, winter music, music for wrestling wolves and smearing hot blood across your chest. This is warrior-priest music, stalking-the-shadows music. It’s music that finds ways to sound like Joy Division and Neurosis at the same time, while also mocking the idea that you can describe a piece of music by naming other pieces of music. It is a spitting, roaring, fiery beast of an album, a remarkably gratifying listening experience that may leave you feeling more whole, more human when it’s over. Give yourself over to it.
Refractory Obdurate is out now on Deathwish Inc.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Damon Albarn’s clicking, whirring inward look Everyday Robots.
• Pixies’ argument-starting EP collection Indie Cindy.
• Wye Oak’s shimmering synth experiment Shriek.
• Frameworks’ intense, sincere post-hardcore debut Loom.
• Arcadia, Chairlift leader Caroline Polachek’s hazy, introverted solo debut as Ramona Lisa.
• Fennesz’s conceptual Endless Summer follow-up Bécs.
• Ought’s spirited postpunk debut More Than Any Other Day.
• Dirty Projectors member Olga Bell’s Russian-language solo LP Krai.
• Fellow Dirty Projector Nat Baldwin’s solo LP In The Hollows.
• Floor’s reunion fuzzbomb Oblation.
• Ex Cult’s grimy garage punker Midnight Passenger.
• Black Mountain side project Pink Mountaintops’ weird L.A. coke-rock move Get Back.
• Former Unwound members Survival Knife’s debut Loose Power.
• Sean Lennon project the Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger’s mystic psych freakout Midnight Sun.
• Monster Ralley’s collage-based zone-out Sunflower.
• Lord Mantis’s filthy sludge attack Death Mask.
• William Tyler’s Lost Colony 12″.
• Jacques Greene’s Phantom Vibrate EP.
• Pony Bones’ PONY BONES II EP.