reviewed by Michael Thomas
When you consume enough media, you realize that beauty can be as frightening as it is soothing. There’s no doubt that the atmospheric/psychedelia-tinged folk music of Astral Swans is beautiful to behold—sometimes his songs are as simple as him strumming a guitar, with some atmospheric effects in the background. But with a combination of some memorable hooks and some truly stunning lyrics, Strange Prison is a building you won’t want to escape.
Appropriately, album opener “Blow Away” is a song that will blow you away. It’s a subtle build that begins with organ and guitar, and lyrics that will immediately grab your attention: “I had a dream in which I killed all of my friends/They weren’t able to forgive, they weren’t able to forget.” There’s a ton of sharp images in this song, and the subject matter feels more and more intense as the bass enters, starting with Swann singing of a dream in which “I fucked a married man/looked his wife in the eyes, like she wasn’t even human.”
The next song feels like a completely different side of Swann—”Controls” features Dan Mangan on vocals and some instruments and it feels like something a more focused Dan Mangan + Blacksmith might have been able to make. The ghostly production and the frantic-sounding way Mangan and Swann sing “help” make this a worthwhile experiment.
The album switches between softer, atmospheric songs and more frenetic ones, but both feel equally thoughtful and subtle. “Sew Their Mouths” and “General Rule” are faster songs, with the latter featuring lyrics like “Dress me up like I’m a general/Tell me I’m successful.”
It feels easy to lose yourself in Swann’s softer songs like “Prison Builder,” which starts with Swann’s trademark guitar/atmospherics combination. Another biting set of lyrics begin it: “Before you were even things that you are/you probably didn’t even have friends to fuck over.” There’s a ton of vulnerability in “What Are You Gonna Do With Yourself,” where Swann’s vocals sound like he’s struggling under the weight of emotion.
A number of guests add little flourishes to each song, like Tigerwing’s vocals on “General Rule” or Scott Munro (also co-producer” contributing keys on several songs. But the final song, “End Song,” is just Swann, wondering about what he’s become and what will happen to him. The album name comes from the title track, and it appears the “strange prison” is his own mind. And by the end of Strange Prison, it feels like we know his mind just a little bit more.
Strange Prison will be released May 18 via Madic Records.
Top Tracks: “Blow Away”; “Prison Builder”
Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)