Angels of Light, New Mother

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 11.27.11 in Reviews

Rising from the ashes of Swans, Angels of Light emerged in 1999 and would occupy Michael Gira for the next decade, both in the studio and on the stage. Featuring many former Swans collaborators — Bill Rieflin, Phil Puleo, Larry Mullins, Christoph Hahn — the band represented a continuation of Gira’s interest in acoustic music and American folk idioms. At the same time, the sound they conjured — and “conjured” seems to be the only word to describe music so full, so deceptively complex, that unrolls so effortlessly — was unlike anything else at the time. (The closest comparison to Angels of Light’s rippling, spectral wash might be Jim O’Rourke’s Eureka, from the same year, right down to Gira’s similar fusion of hillbilly rounds, Reichian arpeggios, and Van Dyke Parks-inspired harmonic overflow.) They were not a “roots” band, certainly not retro, and never as self-consciously outré as the strain of music that eventually became dubbed “freak folk,” but there were overlaps with that loose scene — just consider the fact that Gira signed freak-folk flag bearer Devendra Banhart to his own Young God Records.

Emerging from the ashes of Swans

New Mother came together with the assistance of 19 musicians, but in comparison to the Body Lovers, which felt like a solo project with assistance from others, Angels of Light’s debut album sounds like the output of a cohesive unit. What’s amazing is that a band front-loaded with percussionists (Larry Mullins, Thor Harris, Phil Puleo) could turn out so feathery and soft; in fact, there are few traces of rock drumming on the album, which instead bristles with mallet instruments, bells, and cymbals. Gira is the calm at the center of the storm, and sometimes vice versa — particularly in the album’s latter half, where the music collapses like a deflating balloon around his lone frame, which rages quietly in every direction.

He adds honest-to-goodness singing to his repertoire of vocal styles, along with his usual growling, muttering, and creaky Sprechstimme, often sounding like a rustier Scott Walker or a more detached Mark Lanegan. Lyrically, he seems like he’s allowing the stripped-down music to lead him to a rapprochement with his past, as with an unusually frank confession to his late father: “Thank God you never saw the person I’ve become.”