8-Track: Swans

Few bands are as acclaimed and influential as prolific New York no wave legends Swans; fewer still have earned this status more than once in the span of their career. Over the course of thirteen albums and two periods (1982 to 1997 and 2010 to now), Michael Gira and a rotating cast of collaborators – some more permanent than others – have significantly reshaped the landscape of experimental music. Just look at some of the artists that have either drawn from or directly cited Swans as an influence: Godflesh, Tool, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Neurosis, Sonic Youth, ISIS, Agalloch, Jesu, Nirvana, My Dying Bride and so on (as if this list wasn’t impressive enough). In this installment of 8-Track, we’ll take you through the incredibly dense and varied world of Swans and pick out the encompassing tracks from what we consider their best albums, ranging from their pummeling eighties days perverting noise and post punk to their current motive of defying any reasonable label. Buckle in and prepare to be severely tarred-and-feathered.

“Blackout” – Filth [1983]

Filth is a fitting testament to Swans’ birth within the no wave movement. It’s still unclear what Michael Gira and crew want to be, but it’s always been abundantly clear what they are: abrasive, unsettling and bleak. “Blackout” encapsulates this approach perfectly, as Gira leads the inaugural incarnation of Swans through a twisted romp that makes listeners question whether they should groove or squirm along to the noise. Bearing the album’s consistently bass driven plod, “Blackout” bears a backbone of chunky riffs that channel krautrock and proto-punk, bastarding heavy references of Can and The Velvet Underground. A wailing guitar refrain lifted straight from a “Sister Ray” outtake provides the only counterbalance to the four strings’ dominance and adds to the chilling atmosphere that surrounds much of Swans’ work. This atmosphere — as well as the pounding, nearly tribal drums — are indebted to Joy Division flavored post punk, with a bit of Wire tossed in for good measure. And of course, no Swans track would be complete without the deranged moan of Gira, whose diatribes’ swiftly twist the knife of anguish:

Get drunk/Breathe in/Hold it in/Don’t breathe/Don’t talk until you’re spoken to/Don’t breath/Blackout

All of this is undeniably rough; Gira’s revolving-door crew would refine and explore across Swans’ dozen subsequent albums. Yet, it’s difficult to imagine anyone fully appreciating the untouchable Swans discography without experiencing its impetus. Gira put it best himself when he explained that “Swans are majestic, beautiful looking creatures…with really ugly temperaments.” There’s plenty of majesty and beauty in Swans’ career, and we’ll get there further along in this post. But for now, blast “Blackout” and bask in the hideousness that Filth has to offer.

[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=1030216537 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=3504857683]

-Scott Murphy

“Cop” – Cop [1984]

While Swans’ debut album, Filth, certainly laid the groundwork for their caustic early days, it wasn’t until 1984’s Cop that the band became the most abrasive group to ever emerge out of the no-wave scene. The album’s eight tracks are all a swirling amalgamation of feedback loops, guitars and basses distorted almost beyond recognition, and Gira’s shamanic bellows. While the entire album is rather repetitive in nature, its intent is perfectly executed, as it effortlessly transports any listener into the darkest corners of New York City’s industrial nightmare. Cop could also be argued as one of the heaviest albums ever made in any genre, full fucking stop. Seriously, it’s that brutal.

The album’s title track perhaps best exemplifies these qualities, due to the fact that the song essentially builds off of the same groove and structure for the entire 7 minute run-time. While this may seem like a deterrent for some, fans of Swans’ entire discography know that this is exactly what the band is known for. Swans has never been (and probably never will be) about delivering a memorable tune to hum immediately back; it’s about creating moods and atmospheres through using insane amounts of layers that execute their bare minimum while alone. It’s no surprise that you’d hear influences from this album in albums like Napalm Death’s From Enslavement to Obliteration and Godflesh’s Streetcleaner; this should have been held as the standard for oppressive noise in the late 80s.

Nobody beats you like a cop.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1JOf3QHvf4

-Kit Brown

“Greed” – Greed [1986]

Two albums in, and the band show no signs of slowing down. The sister albums Greed and Holy Money truly exemplify the intensity of the band’s core sound, while also showing its first signs of experimentation and sonic exploration. With the addition of Jarboe, the band delved into a whole new territory. The explosive and thick walls of noise are compounded with tribal drums, but now have an additional layer. Jarboe’s haunting vocals are reminiscent of an evil banshee, and her presence is felt throughout both records. This is most evident on the title track from Greed, where her vocals are the antithesis of anything ever heard before. Hard to believe she was only 16 when she recorded her pieces and effectively became a member of the band.

It’s fairly hard to imagine Swans moving on to records like The Seer and To be Kind without the experimentation portrayed on Greed. The track itself is a long, dissonant track, that has tons of clashing sounds and frequencies that somehow work in the most conventional way. The same guitar riff is played over and over, with the tribal drums keeping a slow, sludgy pace. The middle of the song brings in even more clashing sounds, and by the end, it’s one mess that you’re not sure if you want to clean up. This is perhaps where Michael Gira really started to refine his unique style of harmony by putting together sounds that would never go together in a conventional song. If not for this song, or this album, Swans would likely have stayed the same for nearly 30 years, and that would have been a shame.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6vMo7Qp0zA

-Spencer Snitil

“In My Garden” – Children of God [1989]

For whatever reason, in 2015 Swans’ 1989 masterpiece of an album Children of God seems to be frequently overlooked by either the very beginning or most modern works in the band’s extensive catalog. Caught right inbetween the band’s blistering beginnings and their brief (and underwhelming) foray into simpler songwriting with The Burning World, this record perfectly captured the group’s rage-ridden start with their future visions of conjuring some of the most epic soundscapes laid to tape.

The album’s second track, “In My Garden,” is simply beautiful. Led by the soothing and angelic vocal performance of ex-member Jarboe, this song wastes no time in transporting the listener to the exact garden the song speaks of. It’s a wonderful ambient piece, packed to the brim with wonderful production, lush sample work, and the band’s trademark use of overwhelming simplicity to let the listener insert their own meanings, interpretations, and emotions behind the music. While this song may not be as accessible as “New Mind” or “Sex, God, Sex,” this song needs to be included in our 8-track simply for the fact that it may just be the single most beautiful song Gira & Co. has yet to bring to the table.

Things grow in my garden/Then they die/Then they fall away

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djr7fp_JxgA

-Kit Brown

“She Lives!” – The Great Annihilator [1995]

After five perverse, punishing Swans records, Gira and crew began to slowly drift up from the gutters into some puzzling territory. After Children of God, Swans went through an unexpected absolution and released The Burning World, which was easily the most pleasant piece they’d composed up until that point. Then came sister albums White Light From the Mouth of Infinity and Love of Life, which strayed slightly from their predecessor but took the general framework along with them. Swaying between dismal post punk, morbid folk and unidentifiable bliss, these albums flirted with a sound that Gira and crew would perfect on The Great Annihilator, one of the greatest achievements of Swans initial life as a band. “She Lives!” most accurately captures this success, perhaps explained best by Gira’s lyrics:

Now I just want to thank you/For going insane/Every second you suffer/Is a loss that I gain/Every breath is a drain down/Down into a hole/And your mind is a shrinking thing/It was crushed by your skull/Now you feel time unfolding/Deep in your chest/And your body’s expanding/Now there’s none of you left

This is the persistent emotional plane that The Great Annihilator resides on; you’re never entirely certain Gira and crew are lovingly basking in another’s pain or bearing the brunt of the pain that’s pleasing someone else. Effect-laden guitars bounce around the mind and emit a mysterious, spiritual vibe, subtlety warping their echo in the shadows once they’ve finished circumventing their initial trajectory. A fair amount of additional instrumentation, including trumpets, organs and acoustic guitar, the last of which is a prevalent feature on the album. While these sounds blend together atop simple but driving percussion, Gira croons the aforementioned verses, sounding less deranged and more genuinely disturbed. By the time the song suddenly shifts to a bleak post-punk instrumental, it’s clear that Gira is aiming for a sound which extracts the viscerality of Swans and applies it to a greater songwriting ideal. Everything achieved on prior swans releases reappears in a redirected form, equal in intensity but more massive in scope. If only Swans fans knew at the time what was in store for them the following year…

[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=334271567 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=3860854529]

-Scott Murphy

“Animus” – Soundtracks for the Blind [1996]

Soundtracks for the Blind was without question the definitive Swans album prior to Gira rounding up a new gang in 2010. As stated by Gira himself, this nearly two and a half hour double album “has everything in there — all the ideas from Swans’ 15 years of work.” Over the course of twenty-six tracks, Gira and crew reimagined prior sonic concepts and tacked on new ideas to produce groundbreaking work in post rock, field recordings & samples, drone, (dark) ambient, electronica, post punk, neofolk and beyond to truly test the boundaries of experimental music. There’s even a goddamn dance track for fuck’s sake (seriously, look up “Volcano” and come back with your shock). It’s effortless to hear the album’s influence following its release, but it’s not such an easy task to pick a song that adequately represents everything that Swans had to offer before their demise. For the purposes of this column, “Animus” comes about as close as can be achieved, which is no way intended as a shot at such an excellent track. At least a glimpse of everything present on SFTB appears on “Animus,” including an appearance from the relatively absent Gira who croons:

Why can’t I hide inside/Your malleable electric face?/You’d suck away the pain/And swallow down my sickest dreams/Now my body feels like snow/Spilling out the shattered screen/Where will we be then/When all the fear and blood are gone/Drained into one hundred million open children’s mouths/Screaming out your name

This is exactly how SFTB is intended to make the listener feel: a torrent of emotions simultaneously, without restraint. As a looping guitar arpeggio loops along with ambient synth, occasionally slipping into brief cacophony, it becomes clear how literal the title of this masterpiece is meant to be. Every moment on not only “Animus,” but the album as whole, is intended for a blind listen; a listening experience composed with a lightless room and not a single distraction in mind. Of course, this is a daunting album, and considering which two albums close out this list, it’s certainly contestable that SFTB is Gira and crew’s greatest achievement. But if you’ll allow me an obvious pun, there is no denying that SFTB is one of the greatest swan songs in music history and a truly exceptional, landmark achievement.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQoObnLzCds

-Scott Murphy

“Mother of The World” – The Seer [2012]

The Seer is one of the most unsettling albums ever written, and “Mother of The World” is the most unsettling track on the album. With this, Michael Gira and company build everything they’ve established so far into a jolting, creeping, bombastic and eerily beautiful ride to the top of a musical mountain that climaxes in a breathless explosion of instrumentation that’s as initially confusing as it is offputting. This is a weird song on a weird album, one that wears you down and drains you. And that’s exactly the point. “Mother of The World” is the culmination of all of the musical themes Swans have been exploring on The Seer, and while taking the song by itself can be a bit strange, in the context of the album it’s brilliance is revealed. Post revival Swans material doesn’t often get better than this.

-Colin Kauffman

“Screenshot” – To Be Kind [2014]

Post-reunion era Swans is a tricky beast. During its initial run, the band had dabbled in and proved to be immensely influential for multiple genres that ran the gamut from post-punk to drone. Known as a band that constantly evolved and never overstayed its welcome, Swans’ breakup almost seemed like it happened because they simply ran out of unexplored territory. Which is why their return was so intriguing — it was impossibly hard to predict what style they would adopt next, which made it all the more tempting to try to do so. Fast-forward to the release of To Be Kind, however, and any question mark left seems like a nuisance. With their 2014 album, Michael Gira and co. re-established their sound as one that is distinctly, undeniably Swans.

Like the entire piece, “Screenshot” is at once every genre Swans have ever covered, and none of them at all. The true reasons why it is perfectly representative of the album, however, lie beyond any crude limits of genre classification. Firstly, the structure of the song sets a template that is maintained by almost all the songs that follow — a structure that relies on painstaking repetition and extremely slow development to ramp up the intensity before sending it into overdrive. The opening few minutes of “Screenshot” are also perhaps the best display of To Be Kind’s magnificent production, with the main riff and patiently building drums sounding crisper than anything the band has ever done. Michael Gira’s voice immediately steals the show when it arrives, and like the rest of the music, he employs an ideal balance between the vocal styles that show up throughout the rest of the album. He initially sounds as hypnotic and meditative as on later songs “What We Do” and “Kirsten Supine,” whereas his gravely bellows during the ending crescendo hint at the much more deranged screaming that springs up on “Oxygen” and “She Loves Us.” Finally, Gira’s lyrics also represent To Be Kind in a nutshell — they’re simple and repetitive, but in a way that is raw, and even primal above all. It is this unbridled energy that turns the album into a masterpiece — or, to be precise, yet another masterpiece by a band that never seems to run out of gas.

-David Aleskov

 

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