By Venus Rittenberg, Editorial Director
[Young God Records]
Key tracks: “Stay Here,” “New Mind,” “God Damn the Sun, Blind, I Am the Sun, Helpless Child”
I know I said I wouldn’t be adding onto this column again until the fall, but I changed my mind. See, I originally thought I would do my first column back in the fall over The Seer, To Be Kind and The Glowing Man; and my final column of the semester over Soundtracks for the Blind, succinctly covering the greatest hits of one of my favorite bands and perhaps the best known experimental band of all time, Swans. But Swans is a difficult beast, and I ultimately decided I’d rather do two pieces, one about their output from 1982-1998 at the start of summer, and a second one at the end of summer on their music following their reformation in 2010. This format allows me to discuss their full, complicated discography in an overview format, without going too in-depth with any one album (although I’m going to break this rule for the ever-complicated Soundtracks). This summer, I will be doing an overview of Swans full discography, and this issue will cover their no-wave roots, their goth phase, and finally, the daunting beast that is the aforementioned Soundtracks for the Blind.
Swans’ beginnings are brutal. Their first four albums are some of the most barbarous music I’ve ever heard, all topped off with a live album that turns the brutality to an 11. Swans began in the no-wave scene, alongside bands such as Sonic Youth, who they shared members with and toured with. Of their no-wave output, nothing sticks out more than their debut album, Filth. Filth may not be the most agonizing of this era’s output, but it is the most cohesive and the most compelling. Take the opener, “Stay Here,” for example. Although its beat swings wildly, there is still a definitive rocking motion that can be taken with it, it’s almost catchy in a way. Lyrically, Filth sets up perhaps the most significant theme of frontman Michael Gira’s writings throughout Swans’ pre-hiatus work: Dominance. A lot of Swans lyrics from their pre-hiatus days examine power imbalances, submission, oppression, resistance and taking advantage of people, as well being taken advantage of. Perhaps the most explicit example of this from the no-wave days comes from the Young God EP, the notorious “Raping a Slave.” The song could be interpreted as being about literal rape in an abusive relationship, or about the way the system “rapes” people within it. The song received attention for its violent name. It is one of the best-known songs from this era of Swans’ output.
The Young God EP was released around the same time as Swans’ sophomore album, Cop. Cop is slower and more grueling than Filth. Cop was followed by a duo of albums, Greed and Holy Money. These two albums introduce a significant change for Swans, although the albums definitely continue in the no-wave progression. These albums were the first with the other defining figure of Swans, Jarboe. Jarboe changed things for Swans. She introduced keyboards, melodies and another vocalist. These changes were implemented slowly, as they are merely a detail of these two albums, but they would become much more significant very soon.
In the same year that Swans released Greed and Holy Money, they also released a live album from those albums’ tour that is perhaps the most brutal thing they have ever made. Public Castration is a Good Idea sees Swans once again utilizing provocative naming conventions to get attention. But don’t worry, the album isn’t all gags. The album sees Swans taking the songs from Greed and Holy Money, their least intense works at the time, and ramping up the pain. The album is agonizing (in a good way, if that’s your thing). There is truly nothing else like it. Public Castration illustrates an important component of Swans: their live albums. Swans has many, and they often offer something special. This one, and one that will be discussed later, raise special significance for their unique takes on the material they cover.
In spite of creating their most violent work just a year before, 1987 would be a turning point in Swans’ sound. Children of God transitions Swans out of their no-wave period, and into their goth period. Children of God still maintains some of the heaviness of Swans’ earlier days on songs like “New Mind” and “Beautiful Child,” but also introduces much softer and more classically-beautiful moments than their previous works had contained. This album also sees Jarboe’s role continue to expand in the group. She takes lead vocals on many songs on this album. Children of God would be followed by the album that is generally considered Swans’ worst. The Burning World takes a more folk-y direction than Children of God and although there are still some quality songs, this experiment is ultimately not their best. With that said, “God Damn the Sun,” the album’s closer, is one of Swans’ best pre-hiatus songs.
What followed The Burning World was a clear evolution from that album, combining the best qualities of it and Children of God. It is a much better album that still embraces the gothic and neofolk elements that were present in the past two records. It is my opinion that White Light From the Mouth of Infinity is Swans’ first masterpiece. The massive increase in quality is apparent from the very first song, “Better Than You.” This track lays out some of the album’s themes, love (or the lack of it) and hatred. “Better Than You” sees Gira claiming that he is better than “you.” It is pretty clearly directed at an ex, as he states in the second verse, “I can remember the feel of your skin / No, you never knew me and you never will.” The second song on the album is quite simply a banger that rivals their most intense work. “Power and Sacrifice” is a song that demands the volume be cranked, especially during the hums in the chorus. Perhaps the best known songs from the album are tracks six and seven, “Love Will Save You” and “Failure,” respectively. Both of these songs deal with feelings of self-hatred. In “Love Will Save You,” Gira points out all the many times love will save “you,” but concludes that it won’t save him. “Failure” involves Gira listing the many ways in which he is doomed to be a failure. Ironically, the best-known song from White Light isn’t even originally on the album. When the album was remastered he added a “bonus track” in the last third of the record, the song “Blind.” “Blind” appears on two other Swans-related releases. Gira’s solo album, Drainland, and the compilation of songs from this period, Various Failures. Bonus track or not, “Blind” is essential listening. It’s beautiful and captivating, musically and lyrically, which really sums up White Light as a whole with its lush instrumentals and moving lyricism. Swans’ next album would be a companion to White Light titled Love of Life. Tragically, Love of Life once again sees a dip in quality. It’s not bad per se, it’s just kind of forgettable, whereas White Light leaves a mark. However, three years after Love of Life, Swans would return with another masterpiece, the post-punk The Great Annihilator.
The Great Annihilator begins with an instrumental piece before bursting into the intense “I Am the Sun.” The first three songs on this album demonstrate Swans’ mastery of post-punk perfectly. “I Am the Sun” is aggressive and contains a beautiful chorus (as in choral voices), “She Lives” shows Swans disturbing lyrical prowess and “Celebrity Lifestyle” displays Swans’ hatred of high-society over an incredibly powerful instrumental. Jarboe’s songs on The Great Annihilator are her best yet, too. “Mother/Father” continues the intensity of the album perfectly. The second half of the album has many highlights as well. “Killing for Company” depicts the actions of a serial killer over a haunting instrumental, it is kind of a premonition of the direction Swans would take on their next effort. “Telepathy” is another amazing song, once again rather intense. The whole album is quite intense actually, and that’s what makes it stick out amongst this era of Swans. Many of the other albums of this time focus on beauty, even when they’re being ugly it’s in kind of a beautiful way. Yet, The Great Annihilator returns to brutality and graphicness and it’s unrelenting. It is the culmination of this era, and quite a good note to end this phase of the band on. Plus, it is a solid transition to where they would head next.
Soundtracks for the Blind is a beast. The two-and-a-half hour album is without a doubt the most ardent thing Swans would ever release, which is saying a lot considering how intense their output has been. It is the perfect conclusion to the band’s pre-hiatus days, and would have been a perfectly fine note for them to end on if they had not reformed. The first three tracks of Soundtracks illustrates everything this album is about. “Red Velvet Corridor” is a drone piece, something that is quite common on this album. Swans utilize lots of drone and ambient elements on this record, and they do them quite masterfully. “I Was a Prisoner in Your Skull” is one of Swans’ most iconic songs. The first segment of the track is a drone piece, and the second portion is a recording of someone describing all the ways the person they are speaking to is “more fucked up” than the speaker. It is chilling, but in a way also funny.
The third track, “Helpless Child,” is considered a contender for Swans’ best song. While it is not even my personal favorite from this album, I understand why it is so revered. The song is a 16-minute post-rock slow-build. It is one of the greatest post-rock songs of all time. Lyrically it sets up a recurring theme of this album: abuse. The song is at first about a pregnant woman who drinks, smokes and does drugs. Later, the song is about the child seeking revenge for the damage done to them. Whether this is metaphorical for parental abuse or literal is up to the listener. It is known that Gira’s own relationship with his mother was quite complex, and I am sure that that inspired some of the lyricism on this album (as will be shown much more explicitly later). Regardless, “Helpless Child” is an essential Swans song.
A lot of what makes the instrumental songs of Soundtracks hit is their titles. Song titles like “Live Through Me” and “The Beautiful Days” conjure up specific imagery in a listener’s head that fills in the blanks left by a lack of lyrics. Gira and Jarboe’s lyrical output on this album is darker than ever, though. “All Lined Up” especially comes to mind, as it appears to depict homicidal desires. The song is disturbing to say the least. Disc one ends with another lengthy post-rock track, “Animus.” “Animus” is also incredibly dark, but is also very vague. I think that it can be interpreted to flow with the album’s recurring theme of abuse, this time examining the after effects of such treatment.
Disc two opens with a callback to disc one, a brief Jarboe track titled “Red Velvet Wound.” The song is my personal favorite Jarboe song, and contains lyrics that once again could be read as a depiction of the impacts of abuse. The line “So let them say, how you were wild / For what you really were was tender” always hits hard. “Red Velvet Wound” is followed by the third long post-rock song, and my personal favorite Swans song, “The Sound.” “The Sound” is the most concrete example of lyrics about abuse on the album, describing an abusive mother from the perspective of her son. The song starts off slow as many post-rock songs do, but then begins one of the most rewarding builds of all time. There’s just so many layers and they’re all phenomenal. When a new part comes in it just swarms your whole body. It’s intense in the best way.
Towards the end of disc two there is another Jarboe track that demonstrates very explicitly how Soundtracks is the culmination of Swans’ work up to this point. “YRP” is a reworking of a track off Cop titled “Your Property”. The song is about what many Swans songs are about, domination. The fourth and final long post-rock song on the album is titled “The Final Sacrifice,” and it just about closes out the album. The absolute final track is a drone song titled “Surrogate Drone,” ending the album relatively similarly to how it started. Soundtracks will blow you away with its unsettling atmosphere and lyricism. It is an incredible album from start to finish that deserves attention and meditation. It is easily one of the best albums of all time. It is Swans’ swan song.
Swans would have one more release prior to their breakup, a double-live album that set in stone their end, Swans Are Dead. Swans Are Dead compiles music from two tours, one right before Soundtracks, and one right after. The tour from before Soundtracks is disc two, and ironically features music that would appear on Soundtracks. Disc one, from the tour after Soundtracks, features a wide mix of their music, often with post-rock reworkings (“Blood Promise” from The Great Annihilator, for example, is featured in an over-15-minute version featuring plenty of wondrous builds). An easy highlight from this disc is the opener, “Feel Happiness,” which doesn’t appear on any other Swans-related release. To my knowledge it was only ever played once. The first segment of the song is a roughly 11-minute build inspired by Glenn Branca. The second part is a shadow of what Gira would do with his next band, Angels of Light. It is a beautiful, almost-folky segment about wishing someone happiness. It is a mature and majestic note to end the band on. And so Swans came to an end, for 13 years that is.
Later this summer, I will release an issue dealing with their music after their hiatus, but until then, have a good summer.