Michael Gira’s Swans are one of the most incomparable bands alive. Originating from the New York No Wave underground, the band has been confusing music journalists and listeners for more than 30 years. Call them post-punk, industrial, post-rock, or experimental, none of these names really fit, yet they all can be useful reference points to the uninitiated. One thing is for certain, they will either stupefy or enthrall you.
Author Nick Soulsby has recently published an oral history of the band that traces their history from their earliest days to the present. Collecting the stories and memories of 35 current and former members of the band, plus 100 more individuals (like Thurston Moore, JG Thirlwell, Lydia Lunch, Bill Laswell), the book is not only a must-read for fans of the band, but anyone interested in one of the more complicated and compelling histories of an uncompromising artist or band. Soulsby has previously authored books on Nirvana and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore that have found homes on my bookshelf. Needless to say, I was thrilled to learn of his Swans project.
After exchanging a few emails and asking him about his book and own Swans-fandom, it seemed logical to ask him to compile a primer of the Swans music. Personally, I’ve never had any success turning the Swans on to someone who has never heard of them. Reason why is their ever-changing sonic evolution – one that doesn’t span decades, rather one that changes from record to record, year to year. Those keen on the noisy, experimental end of the spectrum usually find something to love. Your casual listener is likely to find them impenetrable.
Nick Soulsby – The glory of Swans is that the sound never remains the same for more than one or two albums. As a listener, the virtue is that if you hear a Swans you don’t like — fine! Move two albums up and try again. I’ve even seen a stunning graphic designed to help newcomers navigate the sound:
Here, what I’ve tried to do is to identify ten songs that perhaps act as doorways to particular aspects of the three-and-a-half decades of creativity bound up under this single name.
TIME IS MONEY (BASTARD) – 12″ Single (1986)
The introduction to this song is the sound of an industrial nail gun being fired in a metal stairwell: fucking awesome! It’s a display of pure skill and control, to take the industrial elements and weld them into a song that is catchy, dance-able, club-worthy. There are so many pop songs out there that testify to the value of “how you say it,” not just what you say: here, a story, a narrative, is torn down to the bone and expressed in single phrases that ring like commands. There’s an air of Beckett to Gira’s writing: something very rare in crystallizing a scene in so few words.
SEX GOD SEX – Children of God LP (1987)
The apotheosis of Swans early grind and growl, merged with a new found polish and fanfare, “Sex God Sex” was one of the rare songs to be resurrected by the 2010 line-up for shows. Gira’s refusal to play to any particular scene, to fit in with clichés, means that instead of making an album that criticized Christianity — a standard issue move for eighties bands in the post-punk, industrial, alternative vein — he made one that inhabited the crowd-moving appeal of the televangelists. I saw Swans live in London in 2010 and during this song, the music fell away, leaving Gira to bellow “Jesus! Jesus Christ! Come down! Come DOWN!” with the kind of conviction that made me believe, for a moment, that he might actually make it happen.
AMNESIA – Love of Life LP (1992)
Swans certainly underwent a notable transformation in the gap between 1987’s Children Of God and 1992’s Love Of Life. “Amnesia” is, to some degree, a beat-driven pop song. What unites the eras is the vicious edge to Gira’s keen eye with this song, peppered with visceral images layered up one after the other in an avalanche of discomforting moments. The “na na na” chorus, far from being Swans answer to “Hey Jude,” spirals down and down relentlessly, with the juddering drum rhythms pushing the listener on down the stairs and into flesh: hands as broken claws, holed skin, an acid eye, a womb, a heart, mouth, sex in plastic, machines controlling breath.
BLIND – Drainland LP (1995)
Gira originally wrote this song as part of the work on 1991’s White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity, but held it back until 1995’s Drainland. Why? He doesn’t remember, but he knows it’s one of the most exquisitely written narratives he’s ever created and that the band are beautiful. My personal feeling is that some songs need a context, a place to shine. Drainland starts with a sight metaphor, “You See Through Me” and ends with “Blind” — the combination, to me, feels like a tribute to the clarity and honesty that Jarboe brought to him. It’s a wonderfully intricate piece of writing: the second chorus is a response to the first, but both are annulled by the third which declares them to be lies. There are comments throughout drawn from his life: time in jail as a teenager, his drinking, his desire to escape the reputation Swans gained in the eighties, the anger he had provoked in his past collaborators.
KILLING FOR COMPANY – The Great Annihilator LP (1995)
On early songs, Gira inhabited a deviant personae so readily that — as usual — people often seem to simplistically ascribe the sentiments to Gira himself, as if he wasn’t clever enough to separate himself from a fiction. On this 1995 mini-epic, Gira explicitly drew on some aspect of the crimes of Dennis Nilsen, a serial killer who kept his victims’ bodies for a number of days after each murder. There’s a seasick ebb and surge to the music, a beguilingly gentle guitar-keyboard duet at its center, the waking dream narrative sinking into the surrounding sounds. The song divides readily into the kinds of movements that Gira would soon blow up into ten-fifteen-twenty minute eruptions on the 1995 and 1996 Swans tours.
THE SOUND – Soundtracks for the Blind LP (1996)
I was at the Alt-Classic Album Playback in London on Sunday 23rd where we listened to all 2 ½ hours of Soundtracks For The Blind. I thought it might be a strange experience, but no! By the time “The Sound” came on I was utterly lost in music and wound up leaving all English restraint behind. Somewhere between ten minutes and eternity I was dancing, head-banging, shaking like a mad thing as these great sweeps of sound washed over me tearing at my clothing, gently soothing me with coos of “you despise, I love,” before crashing me back against the gunwales of this mad vessel. Swans have a reputation for making the most of repetition and this is a masterpiece of the art: barely 50 unique words made to feel like the weight of the world is suspended in each syllable.
MY BIRTH – My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky LP (2010)
Swans self-describe their classic sound as a “slave ship rhythm,” a certain push-pull: ‘My Birth’ has precisely that discomforting sway and, indeed, it’s lyrics actually originated somewhere during the 1996-1997 run of Swans, making it a direct tie between two eras. Given financial constraints, the basic tracks and overdubs for each song on Swans’ first album in 14 years were laid down in just one day per song. Of course, in that gap came the instrumentally diverse and song-orientated years of Angels Of Light and that influence runs through this song with its trilling keys, room ambience, articulate lyricism. Of course, this is Swans, so it’s also wolf-like in its attack.
SCREEN SHOT – To Be Kind LP (2014)
No joke: I told Chris Pravdica that his bassline on this song made me think of Pantera’s “Walk.” The guitar line running through the first couple of minutes needles rather than noodles, the wall of instruments builds with this organic step-by-step relentlessness until sounds are pinging across the sound-field and being driven tap-tap-tap into the mind. Swans long since mastered toying with time in music and “Screen Shot” is so absorbing you don’t realize it’s two minutes in until Gira’s voice enters. It’s a full six and a half before the track truly explodes: everything up to then feels like tight control, pressure rising, everything in constant motion while you sit patiently on the powder-keg, beguiled into thinking nothing has changed.
OXYGEN – To Be Kind LP (2014)
In some ways a harking back to the punk snarl that was present on Swans earliest recordings, “Oyxgen” dispenses with Swans’ focus on warping song-form to extreme lengths in favour of a desperate urgency, all whip-crack sharp chords and skittering drums that must have strained arm muscles. A sudden halt and Gira howls “Feed me now! I’ll steal all the oxygen!” and a whirling dervish dance of horn stabs pours in on top of the guitar-bass-drums core. A band unafraid to be silent for a moment, that gap makes all the difference on a song that yields not an inch until the final beat stops slamming.
CLOUD OF FORGETTING – The Glowing Man LP (2016)
I’m regularly antagonised by the way in which music fans claim any form of intellectual engagement with music might in some way sully its physical and emotional impact: nonsense. The same artefact, the same song, can be experienced in different lights and from different angles, none of which impact on the validity of any other experience. I love the depth of pure feeling and sensitivity that lies at the heart of Swans; I also love the crushing weight of it. But, Gira’s deeply literate and articulate writing is often disguised or unobserved. Listen to this track in combination with the volume of medieval mysticism, “The Cloud Of Unknowing,” and the song’s contemplative atmosphere and rising majesty will expand rather than being replaced.