After blowing us away with 10 slept-on Seattle era grunge records, Nick Soulsby returns with an armful of essential Swans records from their pre-breakup chapter.
Words: Nick Soulsby
Hauled from the grave in 2010, Michael Gira’s resurrected Swans have garnered vast critical and popular respect. Amid a swarm of reformations cashing in nostalgia checks, the band stands near alone with a recent run of albums living up to every inch of their daunting reputation. It wasn’t always the way. Laid to rest in 1998 with the emphatic Swans Are Dead, Gira had concluded Swans’ aura was an albatross to be slain. A tragedy. Swans back catalog offers a depth of lyrical vision, musical innovation and sheer power rarely equaled. Here are ten albums from the first life of Swans that deserve an awed bow of admiration and a few hours of ear-time.
As ever we’ve compiled tracks from the records into the playlist below, and scroll down to check out the albums individually.
Cop is a growling testament to the brutality of Swans’ early vision. Repetitive mantras disguise complex rhythmic patterns underscored Gira’s full-throated declamations of power, surrender, annihilation. These were metal riffs and vocals reduced to the pace of a boxer’s heavy bag work and thudded home blow by blow. Flesh is deemed expendable, something to be moulded, remade: “get rid of the body.” Swans’ notoriously loud concerts of the era hammered home the message: only existence as pure spirit will give true freedom.
Gira’s writing style reduces everything to bare essentials, stripped of frippery or inconsequence. His every line crackles with intent. Greed indicates that it was possible to retain that intensity while unleashing a broader range of sonic strategies. Thus mouth organ, brass, loops, keyboard all enter the mix, while Gira’s vocals begin to resemble Gregorian chant – rumbled sentiments held, drawn out, looped, his voice becoming another instrumental texture. Jarboe’s showcase, the song ‘Blackmail’, stands out not as a softening but as a new tool for sculpting the lyrical terrain.
With this double album Swans move from preaching physical obliteration to contemplating the burial of true self beneath religion, love, groupthink. Space and silence now cut holes in the battery of crashing beats and grinding strings. Acoustic instruments inhabit the sparse soundscape, interlocking with the chugging rhythms – it’s a testament to Gira’s skill that the disparate elements cohere so divinely. Gira’s range has expanded with cleaner tones predominating, his weighty baritone used selectively between sudden howls of mock-evangelical abandon. Jarboe’s multi-tracked choir vocals underline the sense of the profane and the beautiful, without once suggesting that this is a less than terrifying annulment of self.
Instruments reduced to billowing echoes, a heaven-decrying vastness to the sound, crowd noise becoming one more part of the collective howl alongside the band themselves. This document of the 1987 European tour is a fine introduction to Swans as a live experience. The accompanying photos of a near-naked Gira prostrating himself before the audience made him seem a frail, boyish and angelic figure – belying the fact he was an athletic gentleman in his thirties. It was a fair symbol of where Swans were at. The beautiful musculature of their art was underrated with the majority of the alt-rock audience declaring it all too noisy, while the industrial crowds claimed they’d gone soft. The album mainly contains songs from Children Of God yet each one is warped and cracked apart by the energies summoned into being amid the dust and shadow of the stage.
The strength of Gira’s focus is visible in this outtakes compilation, taken from the band’s first decade. There’s no filler; each unreleased song possesses some unique aspect to recommend it. The delivery of vocals through what sounds like a loudhailer. Completely revised lyrics compared to the versions actually released. Mantra-like extensions to known songs and a clutch of drum loops previously used to reinforce the weight of Swans’ live show now left exposed to the naked eye. Even the muddiness of some of the live rarities only adds to their claustrophobic, drowning-in-sand quality.
Swans retooled the grind of their earlier incarnation into a motorik and relentless drive. If this feels like pop, it’s only by comparison to the ear-battering approach of the previous decade. Creative restlessness has taken hold. Gira’s lyrics depart his former template and enter balladic terrain, his statements of belief are now extolled as dreamlike visions. It’s notable that Gira is increasingly happy to cede vocal duties to others, allowing them to inhabit his words or to erase him altogether. These are increasingly baroque tapestries of sound with Gira refusing to be imprisoned by successes, expectations, or by fans’ expectations. He started Young God Records around this time to escape the industry machine: this was life as art lived only by his terms.
As a teenager, Gira’s delinquency led to him being sent to join his father in Germany. Gira promptly ran away to Israel, where he was jailed for panhandling then deported. Around 2000, on email, I asked Gira whether he’d ever considered writing an autobiography – he rejected the idea claiming it was always an obscenely self-regarding act, that he preferred to focus on lyrics and stories in which – sometimes – his life might bleed through. In Swans’ early lyrics the individual had been torn away, leaving a mould any person might inhabit. The nineties see Swans gradually restore some sense of the personal. Gira’s parents surface as a regular touchstone and this release intensifies their presence as symbols, pays some small homage to the family’s German roots and showcases a new approach to music. Die Tür Ist Zu is a haunted realm in which the gaps between his past and present music slipped away and songs were reprised in foreign tongue or in alternate versions without any need to honor ‘the original.’
The culmination of Swans’ recorded life and, to my mind, their finest statement. Gira’s ambition is now taken as a given, but Soundtracks For The Blind is an exceptional statement of self-confidence, of just not giving a damn how fucked up people might think you are. This is a two hour album that never runs low on inspiration. It’s hard not to see it as a condensing of all the paths Swans had travelled, but this is nothing so mundane as a compilation. Taped sounds merge into fully-fleshed band compositions; spectral recordings sourced from Jarboe’s father’s surveillance tapes give tantalizing glimpses of damaged lives; Gira gives us soulful crooning one moment, banshee-howling devastation the next; ambient sound collages provide respite while live recordings are simply another texture within this elaborate meisterwerk. Gira’s decision to end Swans – exhausted by what he saw as a decade and a half of being denigrated and ignored – provoked him to this most elaborate peak, a triumph hurled in the face of indifference.
Life through death; this posthumous release reimagines the music of Swans in epic post-rock form – it’s the true origin point for the Swans we witness today. Many bands treat the live arena as a comfy jog through expectation-fulfilling greatest hits. By contrast Swans rend that approach to bloodied shrapnel; recasting each song as a fundamentally different entity to whatever might have been caught in studio. It’s hard to believe this compilation is stitched together from different concerts given the seamless flow of these two discs recorded on Swans farewell tour. It exemplifies Gira’s determination that any Swans release is a total and immersive experience. Like a hand wound into one’s hair, holding one’s head underwater until – as time drains away and silence descends – being allowed to breathe at last.
The Body Lovers/The Body Haters The Body Lovers/The Body Haters (Young God, 1999)
Gira intended this to be the opening gambit in a trilogy recording his continued interest in found sounds and electronic manipulation. Instead, it forms a dead end, a post-script to the approach explored on Soundtracks For The Blind. It’s a woven fabric of human voices reduced to disquieting sound (including a particularly harrowing bout of weeping), organic instruments seesawing in queasy motion and harsh electronic tones. This is the last regurgitated bile tearing lose from the throat of dying Swans. The Body Haters, an accompanying bonus disc, is an even more vicious outburst of power electronics. Here, with a last statement of hatred toward physical being, Swans truly expire, the metaphysical journey reaches its end; in the aftermath of the great annihilator, alone with just the blind and the dead, Gira is at last free to rise with the Angels of Light, something beautiful wrought from the ashes.