Consider, for a moment, the spectrum of electromagnetic energy. At one end are gamma rays (which comic book fans will remember as the catalyst for Bruce Banner’s transformation into the Incredible Hulk). At the opposite end are AM radio waves (which Easy Listening fans will recognize as the bandwidth home of 1490 The Bay). Between these two extremes is the very small grouping of wavelengths that compose all visible light. Visible light spans only about one seventieth of the entire spectrum, so though there’s a rich variety of electromagnetic energy around us all the time, we can perceive only a tiny fraction of it.
I would argue that a city’s local music scene can be mapped onto a similar spectrum.
Toward the center, in the visible light portion, you find the bands that sell the most albums and get the most radio spins at home and beyond. In Portland’s spectrum, this is the frequency of popular bands like Paranoid Social Club and the Pete Kilpatrick Supergroup. As you go out in either direction, toward ultraviolet or infrared light, you find developing bands with growing fan bases, most with ambitions to move into the visible light area. Moving beyond this territory, things begin to get stranger.
It is out here, way out among the gamma rays, that you’ll find Glade Swope.
I’ve been following Glade’s career on and off since I first saw him at a USM open mic in 1998. I’m not sure if they still have these unfortunate events, but for a while in the late ’90s the university sponsored them every Thursday amidst the stained couches and flickering fluorescent lights of the Woodbury Campus Center, a singularly unpleasant building.
One of the first things that struck me about Glade, well before he took the vaguely defined patch of floor that served as a stage, was the contrast between the uncomfortable way he stood – constantly shifting his weight, crossing and uncrossing his arms – and the friendly, effusive way he conversed with people at the show. Glade seemed to be both physically nervous and socially comfortable at the same time. (He seemed much more at ease inside his skin during a recent interview.)
I don’t remember what songs he performed that night or much of what they sounded like, aside from some dramatic shifts in volume that made everyone suddenly sit way back in their seats. But another thing that struck me then, which I still find compelling when I listen to Glade’s music these days, was how completely and utterly himself he is. The songs he played that night would definitely be classified as metal, largely due to his guitar work, but they didn’t resemble anything I’d heard before. It was sort of like someone had taken the Iron Maiden aesthetic and combined it with The Moody Blues. This approach kept me coming back out of sheer curiosity, a sentiment that eventually became a kind of admiration.
A few months after that first show, I saw Glade perform at another USM open mic. This time he approached the stage area with his guitar and a small, black boombox that contained a tape of various keyboard tracks he’d apparently recorded at home. He pressed play and launched into a seven-minute odyssey that sprawled out and expanded over an impressive amount of musical territory. It was very unlike his previous performances. Listening to his recordings from that period now, I’d hazard a guess that this song was an early version of “Sea of Tears,” one of my favorites and a frequent placeholder in his live repertoire.
Click to hear: “Sea of Tears” (from The Unfinished Requiem; 1998)
“Some people laugh at the boombox,” Glade told me during our recent talk – and, admittedly, that was my first reaction. “People ask me if I think that it’s cheating to use it. If you look at music as a sport, then yes, it is. But if you view music as an art, then it isn’t.”
For any performer, but most especially for solo acts, there’s a big gap between what you can play for a live audience and what you can produce on a recording. In Glade’s case this gap is gaping. His albums are densely layered with keyboards, synth drums, and other sounds and instruments. Performing with a pre-recorded cassette is the obvious, if rather lo-fi, answer.
But this raises an obvious question: Why not play with other people? Glade says he doesn’t have a band because he “couldn’t live the life,” and he cites, quite reasonably, the fact that most bands playing original music make something close to zero dollars per hour. But I think the reasons go a bit deeper.
There’s a foundationally important sense of separateness running through all of Glade’s work that would be entirely lost if he were playing with other musicians. You can hear this sense of separateness in the music, and at times Glade alludes to it in his lyrics. On the concept album The Time Traveller’s Symphony, he sings, “And when I was 16 it seemed like I was living as if I were only 10, and it makes me wonder if I was so strange even then.”
Glade’s strangeness is the real thing, not at all the affected type. It’s the kind of strangeness that sets a person apart, rather than the kind that calls attention to a consciously constructed uniqueness.
Glade considers The Time Traveller’s Symphony an extended metaphor for “the New Age concept of the agelessness of the soul,” but it comes across equally well as the story of a man who feels isolated from his own time and from the people around him.
The same theme opens his next album, the aptly titled Exile. “The more I see the more I am convinced I originated in a different world,” he sings. “Feels like I’ve been through this time before.”
Click to hear: “Sands of Time” (from Exile; 2002)
Alongside isolation, spirituality plays a major roll in all of Glade’s work. “I’m a bit of a paradox,” he said. “I’m metal and I’m sort of religious. I don’t like Stryper, but I like Amy Grant.”
Though Glade’s sense of spirituality is derived from Christianity, he doesn’t belong to any specific church, and makes no judgments about what is right or wrong for other people. He frequently references “the devil” and a higher power, but a careful listener will never feel like the target of a Christian agenda. “I’m definitely not the preacher-trained type,” Glade said. “I’m more of a progressive mystic.”
Glade has produced a huge amount of material over the years. The earliest stuff I can find consists of two samples from 1991’s The Land That I Once Knewincluded on the CDR retrospective The Almost Lost Treasures of Glade Swope. These songs, which Glade apparently began producing in 1989, are largely keyboard driven, and tend toward the mellower side. The Almost Lost Treasurescontains something like eight hours of music, a lot of live video, and small snapshots of each of the cassettes from the era Glade refers to as his “early period.”
The songs on Lost in Time, the follow-up to The Land That I Once Knew, begin to incorporate more guitar, but are still dominated by keyboards. It isn’t until 1993’s 13 and Eternity that the guitars really start to sound like metal. (If I had to guess, I’d say the “13” refers to Glade’s age at the time, putting him around 26 now, which seems accurate). The track “Demonized,” from 13 and Eternity, forms a metallic template that many of Glade’s later songs build from. Storm the Gates, from 1994, follows in this same vein, while No Justice, also from ’94 and never officially released, sounds like flat-out hardcore.
The Flight of Absolom, which begins what Glade refers to as “The Middle Era,” contains songs he’s labeled “Classical Style Originals.” The pair of tracks from this album included on the retrospective are a return to the original, keyboard-driven style, but with fuller arrangements and slightly better recording technique.
Unfortunately, no tracks from 1997’s The Dove’s Cry made it onto The Almost Lost Treasures, and the album art is missing, as well. The Dove’s Cry was the first Glade Swope album I purchased. It was for sale for years in a big stack beside the register at Bull Moose. I remember the album as an incredibly ambitious undertaking, perhaps one that reached slightly beyond the scope of Glade’s abilities at the time. Yet for me, this is an essential part of his allure: Glade’s willingness to take risks and reach for more complicated and varied sounds.
As you move out of The Middle Era and into Glade’s more current work, you can hear the risks and experiments begin to pay off. His home recording technique seems to become more sophisticated, and his arrangements improve drastically, as do his skills as a guitar player. In short, everything begins to work better.
Glade’s more recent output highlights the remarkable contrast between the wide variety of musical styles he explores and the narrow field his vocals inhabit. Exile,Who Will Rise Above, The Time Traveller’s Symphony and, to a lesser extent,The Unfinished Requiem contain an expansive vocabulary of instrumental sounds. Much of the flavor is straight-ahead metal, but there are also long passages of space rock, surf guitar, contemporary pop, punk, and even hints of math rock from time to time.
Click to hear: “Rise Up Today” (from All that is Real: The Best of Glade Swope, 1998-2005; 2005)
Through it all, Glade’s voice remains consistent and uniquely his own. As with any singer whose voice is far from the norm – Daniel Johnston’s comes to mind – listeners are bound to either love it or hate it. I enjoy Glade’s voice, and appreciate that he doesn’t try to change it to sound more acceptable.
Glade Swope is not for everyone, but he’s a guaranteed treat for folks who like music found on the fringes of the musical spectrum. And whether you’re into it or not, it’s worth recognizing that any local music scene is enriched by its presence.
One of the best things about Portland’s particular spectrum is the strength and diversity of the material at the outer edges. Happily, we’re not a city with a music scene that ranges only from ultraviolet light to infrared. We’ve got Glade Swope, way out there, emanating gamma rays.
— Galen Richmond
Glade Swope’s albums are available at Strange Maine, Acoustic Coffee, and other local music retailers with taste.