Depending on your disposition, you might be tempted to read the title of Yellow Swans’ final album Going Places as either a bitter joke or an optimistic embrace of the future. The suggestion that the members of one of the most high-profile, prolific acts in the already horrifically prolific realm of noise might be moving on to bigger and better things without the rewards of a solid, proven b(r)and name could go either way. Indeed, it’s uncertain whether future projects that Gabriel Mindel Salomon and Peter Swanson undertake individually or as part of groups can reach the aesthetic heights or attention Yellow Swans did over the last decade, but the fairly unceremonious way in which they brought the duo to an end — abrupt announcement with no tour in support of this album — coupled with tracks titled “Opt Out” and “New Life” give the impression that matching or besting past accomplishments isn’t on their minds. They just want or need something new.
The 00s were the decade that noise ‘broke,’ and for a mode of music-making that actively strives to expand aesthetics and challenge the listener, it broke big. Yellow Swans were in operation for most of the decade, playing frequent live shows and releasing a massive number of CD-Rs, in addition to a smaller number of more widely-distributed records and CDs. Only the most ardent and moneyed fan could be expected to keep up with everything they released, and I’m sure the guys didn’t expect anyone to. That amount of material (almost 100 releases in some form over eight years) borders on the ridiculous, and chasing it all down would be akin to those anal jazzbos who feel they have to hear every note played by a favorite artist, more as sport or point of collector’s pride than for aesthetic enjoyment. With so much history, it may be some time before we’re able to fully appreciate Yellow Swans’ achievements, influence, and legacy, and now that the group has folded, working backwards might be an instructive way to approach their catalog.
So what have they left us, in Going Places? Since they’ve worked with such a wide palette of sound — everything from hardcore noise to sick faux-big beat to more shoegaze-oriented material — it would be difficult to name an across-the-board masterpiece, but Going Places will be ranked as one of their best. Across six tracks and a taut 45 minutes, the duo offers an exemplar of themselves and noise, at their ecstatic heights.
But it’s more than just ‘noise’ (as problematic as the term may be): Yellow Swans have long worked with blissful drones and ambient washes that would hardly be recognized as noise by even casual listeners, and this album is full of those moments. Following the crackle and hiss of “Foiled” (at four minutes, the shortest track on the album), “Opt Out” builds on a quietly bubbling soundscape that grows more agitated and abrasive as it builds toward its finale. It’s a typical and effective method of many sound artists, crescendo-rockers, and noiseniks alike, and it’s to the band’s credit that it’s the only track that uses this pattern so overtly. Much of the album is instead spent exploring textures and tones, the duo weaving sounds in and around each other. There’s never a moment when a sound leaps out jarringly or veers off in a sudden, unexpected direction. It’s the work of people who have spent a good deal of time improvising with one another, a blueprint of playing this kind of music collaboratively, rather than trying to outdo each other with volume or intensity.
Not that they’ve abandoned distortion, feedback, or the rumbling vortex; there’s cacophony aplenty here, especially on the nine-minute closing title track. It’s an amazing mini-epic of swirling layers of distortion, drone, and buried vocals building on one another, leading to a screeching climax and echo fadeout. It’s over before you know it, and you’ll want to go back and start the whole album over. Now, it’s easy to make much of this being Yellow Swans’ final release, but whatever your relationship to this group — hardcore fan, mildly curious music omnivore who dipped into their catalog, noise terrorist who thinks the group were too popular or got soft, or noise neophyte wanting to open your ears to some new and challenging sound — the ultimate judgment of Going Places ought to be that of a great record that should and will be listened to often.