Desolation Angels

Failure never sounded so good.

"When I get my hands on some money/ I'll kiss its green skin/ and I'll ask its dirty face/ 'Where the hell have you been?' " ("Failure").

So who ever thought that the SWANS' Michael Gira didn't have a sense of humor, however black? The ironic title of the latest reissue of SWANS material draws attention to the dichotomy between artistic success and commercial obscurity in our ultra-consumerist society, and Gira has known plenty of both.

Various Failures 1988-1992, a sprawling double-CD set, collects more than two hours worth of material from the SWANS' most fertile musical period and makes a very strong case for their being the most underrated rock band of their time. With the addition of Gira's artistic collaborator and (now ex) real-life partner Jarboe to the fold, the SWANS metamorphose here from the ugly martial noise ducklings they started out as into a vehicle that fully lives up to their moniker. The all-consuming music here is a singular combination of gothic melancholy wedded to a musical hybrid of folk and Wagnerian bombast, as on the stunning "Miracle of Love" and the epic "The Golden Boy That Was Swallowed By The Sea."

Jarboe's emotive, operatic cover of Joy Division's classic "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (RealAudio excerpt) is the work of a true diva -- as opposed to the emotionally bankrupt posturings of twits like Celine Dion -- while her cover of Nick Drake's "Black-Eyed Dog" showcases a more feral side. And Gira's best tracks -- from the aforementioned "Failure" (RealAudio excerpt), a desolate ballad that recalls the inspired work of his contemporary, Nick Cave, to the wistful, acoustic "The Child's Right" and "Please Remember Me," by the SWANS sideline project World of Skin -- show him to be a multifaceted, sensitive singer-songwriter whose media reputation as a mere industrial barbarian couldn't be more at odds with the aural evidence.

It was that reputation that led Gira to finally dissolve SWANS after 15 years and form a new outfit, Angels of Light, in hopes of a revised critical reading. On New Mother (dedicated to the departed Jarboe), the subject matter remains dark, but the music has a new, ethereal quality: tracks like the gorgeous, lilting "Praise Your Name" (RealAudio excerpt) showcase Gira's emergence as a more emotive vocalist, leaving behind his narcotically icy SWANS baritone for a more risky, emotionally fragile mid-range, cushioned here by a "dah-da-da-da-dah" chorus. The title track belies the influence of one of Gira's idols, Leonard Cohen, while "Song For My Father" (RealAudio excerpt) is a poignant autobiographical expression of bittersweet regret, the singer's voice cracking with emotion at the song's end. The overall proceedings find Angels of Light (featuring, among others, current-and-ex members of Ministry, Cop Shoot Cop, and Ultra Vivid Scene) constructing a new form of symphonic mountain music, using layers of electric and acoustic instruments including banjo, mountain dulcimer, mellotron and mandolin. Shimmering, chiming and transcendent, the groundbreaking New Mother rates among the best of 1999.