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Punishing music gets uplifting, pop-rock gets in the garage
When discussing intense music, there’s a Far Side comic that comes to mind; a cowboy, riddled with arrows, says to his friend, “Yeah, Clem. I hurt. But y’know, it’s a good kind of hurt.”
Some people listen to happy music to feel happy, and that’s fine. Others are drawn to darker, severe music for reasons that might not be so straightforward; there’s the comforting feeling that a person might not be so alone with dark thoughts, and there can be a feeling of strength or control, which can lead to a positive listening experience without being “happy” in the traditional sense of the word.
The often-punishing music of Swans can be uplifting in its own odd way, with a rarely matched persistence with slow builds, a pounding heaviness and horror-mantra vocal repetition.
After a 13-year hiatus, Swans were reformed in 2010 by founder Michael Gira and released two outstanding albums, and the third post-rebirth album, To Be Kind, is a 2-CD/3-LP juggernaut that is true to the group’s spirit and a magnificently, darkly articulated vision.
The 34-minute track “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture” itself would be one hell of an album, with waves of sound-torrents broken by disorderly piano/dulcimer interludes and horse sounds, ending with tortured shouting. Gira often reduces lyrics down to single, pointed words and streams of interjections, like “Cut! Push! Reach, inside!” on the opening “Screen Shot.”
The hard-to-classify “A Little God in My Hands” features junkyard soul and a death-disco beat, with a hypnotized chorus, concluding with an electronic din and brass bleats. To Be Kind takes its time, but it offers massive payoffs throughout its two hours, from the ominous song-portrait “Kirsten Supine,” with St. Vincent on backing vocals, the frantic, disorienting skronk of “Oxygen,” and the apocalyptic beauty of the title track.
Yet again, Swans have delivered a powerful, engulfing album that is draining but not tiresome; it’s like the victory of a wounded marathon runner dragging a broken, bleeding leg across the finish line.
The Philadelphia quartet Reading Rainbow released two albums of fuzzy, oddball basement pop-rock before changing its name to Bleeding Rainbow, continuing on the trajectory to deliver unpretentious, brisk garage rock.
Compared with its 2013 album Yeah Right, the new Bleeding Rainbow album Interrupt doesn’t offer as diverse a sonic spectrum and thrusts ahead with a more straightforward manner on purpose; its tracks are shorter and more to the point, and it dials back the weirdness by one notch. There’s also less of the whirlpool noisiness that gets the band occasionally lumped in with the shoegazer crowd.
That said, the pop music hooks are strong on Interrupt while the band doesn’t sacrifice its rock edge, bringing to mind Foo Fighters, and the album was recorded well, with care and a sense of balance with vocals that aren’t too prominent—that is, it isn’t pandering to Top-40 aesthetics.
Bassist Sarah Everton and guitarist Rob Garcia, who trade off vocal duties, form the core duo, and the outfit is reminiscent of ‘90s pop-shoegazers Swirlies with more urgency. The album’s first half is a vigorous romp before taking a breather with a moderate tempo on “Out of Line,” at which point a few of the songs become less distinctive.
The album’s 33-minute running time is just about right; anything more, and it seems like the band would have been stretching it. Interrupt ends with “Phase,” a track that sports a strong My Bloody Valentine vibe, down to the guitar pitch-bending atop a fresh bed of fuzz and dreamy Bilinda Butcher-esque vocals.
The listener’s appreciation of Interrupt will depend on what kind of band she’s expecting from Bleeding Rainbow: it could be either the unrefined, basement-bred off-kilter garage rock of its early material, or the above-average, concise fuzz-pop-rock of the current lineup.