Angels of Light
The Angels of Light Sing 'Other People'
riter, vocalist, and prime Angel Michael Gira has come a long way from the soul-bleaching extremism of the Swans. The Angels’ third full length studio effort, Sing ‘Other People’ wrings out the cheapo transcendence of either sheer volume or wild dynamics for work that is more intricately arranged, thoughtfully textured, and generally subdued. Much of this has to do with Gira’s own self-professed desires to nuance and “limit” his music, but even more seems to do with the musical aid of recent Young God addition Akron/Family, whose rustic, screwy-eyed whimsy bears a palpable but unobtrusive levity and gentleness, lightening the Angels’ husking Americana noir and softening Gira’s occasionally heavy hand.
Despite the fact that it remains philosophically impossible to tease out the innumerable contours of human existence while remaining within our own very human understanding, huge amounts of artistic output of all disciplines has built its dreams on some variant of the “portrait”; in short, the aesthetic articulation of a person. We gauge the success of a portrait to evoke the details of a personality (or reveal something unseen) in the absence of the person themselves, a piece of art that somehow suggests the depth of the human spirit. On Sing ‘Other People’ Gira takes a swing at fulfilling his own title’s pretense, conjuring living shadows through tense abstractions and the aid of tones and words.
The best of the lot do exactly what it seems they should: evoke. “Thor,” for example, starts with a disjointed kitchen utensil jamboree before descending into a circle of twisted firelit faces, a brick of psychedelic doowop soaring through the desert air. After a sobering bout with some black ice, the voices return, this time tamed and dexterous, onomatopoetically skittering across sweetly looping vocal arpeggios like a toy car on glass. Thor, bearing his hammer, his saw, and his drum, emerges as a well-drawn figure: a hulking man hairier than a rug with a deep soul and a will to express, but a ruggedness that snips away all existential frills. He can be gruff, but modestly tender, working only “for affection,” accompanied by the comforting silence of rank-smelling dogs.
“Simon is Stronger Than Us” is lilting—almost cute—but whirls with a giddiness that verges on maniacal, Gira dropping the stumpy lyric “Simon has hands made of meat, but he makes a new world out of love” like a sack of overripe bananas from the balcony, gloriously awkward and oddly moving at the same time. And then we know Simon, a diligent man, whose quiet, hard confidence just edges out his flurry of quirks.
Gira & co. do finally slip into aggro mode on the ominous “Michael’s White Hands,” but the ferocity is taut and tempered: a mess of discordant strings and handclaps swarm unbearably near, finally collapsing the tensions into a heave-ho raga, one of the most compelling pieces on the record, in Gira’s own notes identified as a kind of prayer to a deified conflation of Michael Jackson and Saddam Hussein, a horrific, televised opiate image. At the other end of the nightmarish rainbow lies the dampened haze of “Purple Creek.” Gira creaks out a narcotic siren song amidst sour stars sinking into an indomitable mud; sleepy howls emanate from the reverberant darkness beyond gnarled trees, saturating the moss. A quiet raft ride through the uncertain, tepid waters brings us to the king, the most haunting, mysterious figure in all of Gira’s fables: “I know a creature whose intentions are insane, down in Purple Creek, mosquitoes sing him praise… mosquitoes lift his beard… mosquitoes nest his eyes… mosquito fingers in his brain… mosquito message in his veins.” It conjures the deepest-nestled dreams of a stately societal absence, an animalistic figure brooding on the strange, fringed annals of existence.
In spite of its best moments, Gira’s incantations can get pretty plodding, both lyrically and musically—the strapping fieldhands of “Destroyer,” moan away with no apparent direction, and the hearty, honeyed country of “Down from the Mountain” loses itself in its own arpeggios, drifting sweetly into irrelevance. Other times, the flakes of poetry amount to no apparent sum—calling Jackie’s lover “a creature insane, a lion of god” feels lazy, only reinforcing the stodgy faux-religiosity of Gira’s most unpalatable artistic habits.
In general though, it’s a very good turn for Angels of Light. Sing ‘Other People’ leaves behind much of the violence of Gira’s approach but retains the same soul-plunging ambitions, both allying him effortlessly with the druggy expressivity that characterizes practitioners of newer psychedelic music and belatedly identifying him as an influence and antecedent. As far as poetic conceits go, Gira’s most careful studies drudge up both beauty and profound weirdness. Regardless of what he has to work with, it’s still art, and by virtue of his vision, the Gira-as-shaman figure emerges as one as strange and enchanting as any of his best portraits.