Cerberus, the three-headed beast that guards the gates of the underworld, is not imagined to be a pretty animal. His snaked tail and monstrous head prevent all living beings from entering, while ferociously preventing the dead from leaving.
Spencer Krug, Daniel Bejar and Casey Mercer are the multiple heads of indie-behemoth Swan Lake, and on their debut album Beast Moans, they compose ragged and horrid songs as if yelping from the confines of Hades itself.
The opener, “Widow’s Walk,” finds Bejar of New Pornographers fame in the false disguise of a siren, enticing us with melodic hints that recall his other band, Destroyer, before quickly letting them fall to the wayside of blistering guitars, foggy reverb and rising noise. Yet no singer is ever alone; there are always at least two voices singing in unison or discord. In this case, Krug of Wolf Parade offers backing vocals and Mercer of Frog Eyes chimes in with the occasional wail.
Things will quickly fall into intentionally muddy waters with “City Calls.” Led by the already grating voice of Mercer, the track builds as if emerging from the ruins of a war-torn metropolis – howling organs, huge guitars and all three singers at once spewing “The city calls!” before Bejar’s voice triumphantly materializes alone out of the noise and delivers a heart-shaking melody. The ensuing harmonizing sounds like a magnificent, ghoulish opera. It’s the preceding avalanche of sound that makes these moments of grace so affecting throughout the album.
Of the three members, it’s Krug – who also heads indie-group Sunset Rubdown – who fares best in this department. This entire past year belonged to Krug. Following the success of his other band’s LP earlier in the year, he now seems incapable of writing a bad song, emerging as one of the best songwriters of the moment. Nothing he’s done in the past really prepares one for the one-two punch of “Are You Swimming in Her Pools?” and “All Fires.”
What is so amazing about these compositions is that they bear the mark of Bejar and Mercer rather prominently as well, even if they are predominantly solo Krug tracks. “Are You Swimming in Her Pools” is classic Destroyer structure, but it’s also filled with the unparalleled imagery of Krug’s storytelling – “Are you running up her river banks? And navigating long fingers in her hand?/Cause fingers make the hand, and rivers make the land.” Following this track is “All Fires,” which is an epic tale of guilt, pity and the martyrship of music, as well as one of the best songs of the year.
Through all the haze of ugliness and off-putting annoyance that this album may present at first, this track redeems it all. A simple acoustic strum is accompanied by shimmering guitar riffs and an absolutely classic climax: “From near his heart, he took a rib, all fires have to burn alive!” Beast Moans requires the listener to make sacrifices, to battle the fear of Cerberus and uncover the gems of the dark corners of human thought. In other words, the album requires its listener to embrace the underworld.
It’s not always fun. It’s a difficult, painful entrance into the shadows. But once you’re down there, you won’t ever want to escape.