Quiet men are always misinterpreted. Norman Westberg has always been a gentleman but, sheer truth, the stern aesthetic of Swans in the eighties – his whip-taunt frame, tattoos, sharp look, the fury he unleashed on guitar – made for an unnerving impression. At some point age weathered that into an air of calm and patience – again, as a relatively private and peaceful soul people read into appearance and the work produced. Since 2012, while the odyssey that was Swans drove him round and round the world battering audiences into blissed-out submission, Westberg commenced a new series of solo releases (most available directly from him: https://www.etsy.com/shop/normanwestberg) and others via the Room 40 label.
Listening to his solo releases has helped me listen to Westberg’s back catalogue with fresh ears. Where I used to see only the overwhelming nature of Swans, I increasingly see the wide range of textures he brought to the music and how varied is work was – that he was plucking out aspects of his abilities to serve the needs of each composition on which he played which allowed him to span so many years and so many different Swans releases. I’ve reviewed three of the solo releases in the last couple of years:
And have built up quite the little collection (The Chance To, Somewhere Else, Idling Live, Jasper Sits Out, 13, The All Most Quiet, MRI…) After Vacation is billed as a move away from the on-the-spot immediacy of the existing releases with a degree of overdubbing and after-work conducted. Aesthetically it’s very visibly tied to the previous works 2012-2017, there’s a consistency of feel and territory.
The pieces here are mostly relatively brief: between three and seven minutes with even the outlier, ‘Levitation’, only just over the ten minute mark. Each one seems to explore an image or a particular approach. Opener ‘Soothe The String’ mirrors its title in that there’s a sense of tactility, that one can hear a physical guitar string being touched, stroked, drummed even though the resulting piece contains a glowering and ominous undercurrent. ‘Drops in a Bucket’, similarly, feels like the expansion of ripples in broken water with a heavy wave sweeping outward over and over again while other currents and collisions play beneath the surface.
‘Sliding Sledding’ plants heavy guitar strum (circa Bad Moon Rising Sonic Youth) against a descending chord pattern that sounds like an anesthetized I Wanna Be Your Dog, all layered over a waterfall backdrop of glittering notes. In it’s final moments there’s a sudden change into something like the triumphal hum of strings that might mark the peak of an orchestral composition. There’s that same merging of the small and the gigantic on ‘Norman Seen As An Infant’ which exists somewhere between the large canvas works of Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham and the detailed up-close electronic treatments of someone like Christian Fennesz. A Warm flickering bass tremor with a hollow dancing tone weaving back and forth over the top reminded me of a more danceable and carefully controlled result of Steve Reich’s pendulum music.
‘After Vacation’ is the real sucker punch – over a background shimmer, Westberg plays a beautiful melody, all slides, reverberating close mic’ed strings, plucked notes – it’s perhaps the prettiest thing I’ve ever heard him do. His solo records have always belied the roaring temperament of the music he’s best known for and it’s genuinely fun hearing an artist surprise with something so mellow. The combination of ambient backing and heat-stroked improvisation suggests there’s so much more in the tank.