There is such a thing as holy terror, a kind of deep-down dread that stems from coming face-to-face with the other side. Moses felt it when he went to get the tablets, felt it so real and so deep that his hair and beard went white. Christ felt it at the Crucifixion, the sudden absence of divine power. There's holy terror running all throughout We Are Him, the seventh record from Angels of Light.
Head angel Michael Gira is no stranger to that great blackness. He trafficked in horror and cruel despair all through his tenure with Swans, the furious NYC art band/fiery apocalypse that promulgated acts of sonic terror for the better (and I do mean better) part of the '80s. There, though, he roped his disgust to sufficiently intimidating music; Swans songs knew no mercy or compassion. They were ruthless and relentless, a long cold stare down mortality's gaping double-barrel. With the Angels of Light he's turned down the volume but kept the menace at full blast. The result is a kind of sickening dissonance, a child's nursery decorated with Francis Bacon prints.
We Are Him continues that long study in unease. Album opener "Black River Song" peaks with Gira and a team of female backing vocalists shrieking: "Fading! Growing!" while the whole song lurches and churns toward its conclusion. The presence of the female voices — Eszter Balint and Gira's wife Siobahn Duffy — adds a ghostly quality to the record. They function as a chorus of sirens, ominously warning of black skies ahead. On "Not Here/Not Now" they low icily in the background as Gira drags his fingers over a brittle acoustic guitar. "Sometimes I Dream I'm Hurting You" moves like a medieval plague ballad — steady, downcast strum, funereal organ and a gently twirling guitar line. By the time it explodes at the finale, you can almost taste the ash from the incinerator.
More than ever, Gira draws a kind of dark magic from repetition. Most of the songs on We Are Him are built around a single melodic phrase repeated over and over and over and thrive on the mania the monotony causes. Even the theoretically upbeat "Sunflower's Here to Stay," which starts out with a big, bright melody and twinkling piano, eventually turns wild-eyed and feral by the 17th go-round. With its feints toward country music and its legions of screeching violins, We Are Him is a snapshot of scorched Appalachia, a hovering death spectre with a menacing grin. "I am the god of this fucking land!" Gira bellows during one particularly hellish moment. Only a fool would disagree.