Swans’ Leaving Meaning was my 2019 album of the year, and 2012’s abrasive beat-down of a record The Seer only narrowly missed the top spot for my favourite album of the decade. In fact, had the parameters of that latter list been different, and multiple albums by the same artist allowed, the seasoned experimental rock outfit may have snagged three spots on a list of fifteen. Of course, that’s all just one man’s clearly rather biased opinion, but here you are reading it again, so I believe you’re owed a fleshed out explanation this time around. Why do I believe this band were so important to the shape of the rock music in the 2010s? Why won’t I shut up about them? Who in the fuck ARE Swans?
Well, for a start you might not be so unfamiliar with the name, even if you’ve never heard a single piece of their work. That’s because frontman Michael Gira is approaching 40 years curating a revolving cast of characters at the helm of this project. Not 40 full years, but we’ll get to that. Formed in 1982 in the rotting carcass of New York City’s no-wave scene, they quickly managed to shake the well established aesthetic bandwidth with their unparalleled, iron-fisted sonic ferocity. Not so easily giving up on the near-nihilistic temperament that fuelled the music to begin with, the young group decided to take their output to the logical conclusion of these feelings.
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Their first three records Filth, Cop, and Greed, draw holistically from the reckless abandon of NYC during this time period. They’re inherently political in lyrical content (and why wouldn’t they be, the city was famously in shambles), and the caustic and mesmerising use of ‘melody’, for lack of a term more fitting, comes across circumstantially as the band wanting their music to feel every bit as uncomfortable as they must have occupying that space. They didn’t shy away from exorcising what they felt about New York; its inhabitants, the whole damn way of the world actually… and this emerging brand of pummelling cynicism escaping the city had never been more believable than in the ears of anyone who dared listen.
Right at the tail end of that era… enter Jarboe. A choral vocalist who had to unlearn the brunt of her technique at the behest of Gira (who knew exactly the sound he wanted from her inclusion), she would ultimately lead the band into pastures new with her debuting troubled vocal tone and competent skills playing keys. Out-and-out doom, no more.
This, quite evidently, would not be the last time a switch-up was sought to the formula of their output… but it may still be the most significant.
1987 LP Children of God is the piece de resistance of the 80’s catalogue. Transformation complete… they’d found identity in the madness of exploration. Still unhinged, but presented in a much more considered (and dare I say polished) way. There were new tools in the bag to play with, with the inclusion of prominent acoustic guitar features and minor structural tweaks to better resemble contemporary music. Thematically, the band had pushed further afield than ever, lasering in with this eerily delivered religious vehemence, and all the subtlety of a falling sledgehammer. It’s a certified classic. So strange it is to then, to have to talk about The Burning World.
One man and his opinion be damned, this is a small blemish on the catalogue. Swans had seemed to happen upon something with Children of God …a sea change encapsulated in precisely the right moment, and the immediate first impression based on the disappointing follow-up must’ve been that it was simply lightning in a bottle. It was an interesting time for them for many reasons, excluding their artistic deviations (which did continue here with all manner of world-music influences); most notably that Uni Records were so displeased with the album’s performance that they were dropped on their first outing signed. Back to the drawing board.
So, the story rolls on, and the next two studio releases will one day accompany tracks from The Burning World into making a compilation album titled Various Failures. Ahh.
I don’t think White Light from the Mouth of Infinity and Love of Life are bad records. They’re certainly not a disjointed production nightmare like their predecessor, even if they are still fairly garbled. Love of Life in particular, admirably continues to try things. The inclusion of tape loops and field recordings utilised gives a very distinct collage-like feel to proceedings. It plays almost like an auditory found-footage movie, sometimes, which is uniquely unsettling and, I would argue, warrants experiencing.
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The next, and last two LPs pre-hiatus (spoilers, sorry) are two of my personal favourites. The Great Annihilator and Soundtracks for the Blind are pretty far apart, yet both seem to function microcosmically: two perfect representations of Swans’ very identity. Annihilator does this by being the precise intersection of everything attempted up to this point, just sharpened. Nothing sacrificed creatively, instead the right blend of textures past and present, at their most contextually pleasing to the subject matter. It’s their ‘songwriting’ record, as weird as that is to say.
Soundtracks, however, takes a nose dive into the fucking deep end. Despite throwing everything in the pre-existing arsenal into Annihilator to fantastic result, there was still a feeling internally that the project generally had been imprisoned by those values; those sounds and structures. Soundtracks is complete defiance in the face of those who thought they knew what a Swans record was supposed to sound like. A record of glimpses that demand a context you’ll never get, was surely the perfect ceiling-breaking middle finger they’d searched tirelessly for. Right?
Well, even after a release like that, Gira was exhausted. The very name of the band was grating; he felt it was an ugly word with uglier connotations to listeners… so steeped in gloom and misery. He was over trying to salvage things.
Swans were dead. For now.
The decade-plus that followed was positively filled with noteworthy side projects from all core members of the original run’s line-up. There’s so much in fact, that I am completely copping out here. A story for another day, perhaps. Anyway, one such project, Angels of Light, became rather important to the eventual reunion, with multiple members moving across to perform with Gira once again, but under that ‘old name’.
2010’s limited demo release I Am Not Insane served a few purposes: first to fund the now clearly inbound full-length studio album as a remodelled unit, to tide fans over until then, and retroactively speaking, to debut the content model they’d run with moving forward.
So, Swans returned officially later that summer, with the highly-anticipated My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky and it delivered in a big way. A guided missile of hybrid blues rock that knew the millisecond in which to punch, and equally, when to hold back and allow itself the privilege of a more soul-baring moment or two. A total triumph to kick-start the revival leg of their career and they hadn’t really gotten to the good bit yet.
If I were in control, the rest of the oeuvre would each get their own 1,500 word, wildly indulgent propaganda pieces. This is the Swans I found, and the incarnation I love after all. This is the group that dumbfounded and entranced an entire new generation of fans, a ways away from the faithful who swore by Cop and Greed, and here’s my best bet why.
Rock music in my lifetime (don’t ask) has seemed so concerned with trying to re-establish itself as a mainstream-appealing medium that it has long since compromised its artistic shape in that effort. Not to say there’s not some blinding alt work out there that’s financially sustainable for artists, because there seriously is, but looking at the macro… the genre has deserted the things that once made it interesting. This is the backdrop that the reformed assembly arrived in… I’ve a suspicion they felt that way too.
The Seer and To Be Kind are challenging records, to put it nicely. In fact, The Glowing Man and Leaving Meaning, are as well. Swans in the 2010s had a very clear mission statement: reappropriate their name; re-purpose it to mean something other than synonymous with the abhorrent. Secondly, to push themselves beyond what pigeon-holed them to begin with. Maybe quietly, maybe not to packed stadiums, but to those that had cried out for a little something different. I’d say on both parts, job done.
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These last four albums find the band at their most confident. The extended track and overall project lengths should signify this if nothing else, except that literally everything else does too. I should mention they’re not slogs; rather ingeniously paced with ebbs and flows, builds and payoffs, recurring motifs and incantations that bend the mind to will. They’re consistently evolving, performing a sort of twisted alchemy with any and every component they care to, and building these vast, interweaving epics that juxtapose exhausting extremity and almost transcendental catharsis.
That old (mostly self) criticism that boxed up their name seems to be alleviated by this move too: how can they feel trapped when they aren’t for a second keeping still? Finally unfiltered and with vision affirmed, it’s insane to think that they ever weren’t in this position. Really think about it… Michael Gira and co. were making music like Children of God and Soundtracks for the Blind with the proverbial shackles on.
There was a period where it was difficult for me as a modern fan to gauge why they’d ever been considered a dirty word. Dissecting the archive, I found every less-than-popular piece essential to their wider narrative and landing spot I just so happened to waltz in at. Lucky, really. Nevertheless, they continue to push further and further into uncharted territory as one of the most inimitable and peerless acts of all time. Not always gold, but always learning, and often somewhere close enough.