Swans are live

With the Sydney Swans experiencing a somewhat unseen resurgence it feels appropriate to mention another bunch of Swans also making their own understated comeback this year.

Born in the bowels of NYC in the early ‘80’s the band Swans, led by Michael Gira, have been unleashing their genre-defining sound on the world for thirty years now. Even without his band Gira’s life has been an interesting one; born in Los Angeles, moving to Paris and being jailed in Israel for dealing marijuana among his early exploits. Rescued and repatriated back to the States Gira abandoned art school, instead drawn to the fledgling post punk (No Wave) scene in New York in the late ‘70’s and eventually forming the Swans.

Notorious for playing extremely loudly and slowly the band eschewed melody for a grinding repetitiveness with Gira barking violent mantras about submission, self loathing and greed. Full length albums ‘Filth’, ‘Cop’ and the ‘Young God’ EP were always unlikely to garner commercial acclaim but they certainly stamped their mark in a scene that at the time included a fledgling Sonic Youth. British industrial band Godflesh were hugely influenced by them and it was through this band that I became aware of the Swans in the late ’80’s. Kurt Cobain too had a fondness for them rating the ‘Young God’ EP one of his top 50 records. Brutal sums up this early incarnation.

Live the band is an even more intimidating spectacle. Gira states Swans gigs should be ‘soul uplifting and body destroying’ and with a penchant for turning off the air-con in venues he attempts to make the experience more akin to a fevered religious experience. Studio tracks are extended and mangled. Listening to the early live recording of ‘Public Castration is a Good Idea’ endurance rather than entertainment springs to mind. Still being so dark and over the top you have to wonder if Gira and co. are doing this out of a black sense of humour?

In the mid ‘80’s tiring of the ‘extreme’ label vocalist/keyboardist Jarboe was bought into the fold adding another layer to their sound. The immediate effect of this wasn’t really felt until the ‘Children of God’ album when Gira’s delivery matured into a sombre, hypnotic tone. The closest parallel is Ian Curtis on ‘Love will tear us apart’, a song the Swans later covered. Jarboe’s soaring vocals provided a softer counter point although she could rip it up with the best of them when required.

A commercial label failure ‘The Burning World’ saw the Swans going back to their indie roots in the ‘90’s morphing again with a more majestic sound in the sister albums ‘White Light from the mouth of Infinity’ and ‘Love of Life.’ In my view these two albums represent the highpoint of their career, a blend of pounding rhythms, soothing folk, funeral dirges and strange narrative samples. They followed this up with the somewhat more accessible ‘The Great Annihilator’ before bowing out with the mammoth, mostly instrumental, ‘Soundtracks for the Blind.’ Swans Are Dead claimed their 1998 ‘final’ live release and so we paid our respects to one of America’s most influential acts.

Gira had other plans though. Resurrecting the name in 2010, minus Jarboe, the Swans set about crafting a new album, the lengthily entitled ‘My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky.’ At 40 odd minutes it’s like a taster compared to previous releases but provides a fine continuity from ‘Soundtracks’ and proved the band weren’t treading water. The Swans toured the world and there was great expectation as to what they’d do next.

And now ‘The Seer’ is ready to hit the shelves in late August. Gira claims it’s taken thirty years for these tracks to come together and while the clanging viciousness of their early work isn’t as evident there’s no doubting this is a Swans release.

Sprawling over two hours, with two tracks running at 32 and 23 minutes and three others around the 10 minute mark, it’s an intimidating beast. Sceptical this was going to turn into self indulgent bollocks territory I’m glad my fears were largely unfounded. Sure it’s a significant time investment and those unfamiliar with the Swans style are likely to label it repetitive with little going on. But this isn’t commercial fare and nowhere even near even punk; the Swans are sticking to their core concept of playing music that entices, traps and consumes the listener.

In many ways their previous releases could be defined as a collection of songs whereas ‘Seer’ feels more like an extended jam session. These tracks were built in a live setting and no doubt will evolve during tours. Gira professes a love of early Pink Floyd and the lengthy title track in particular has that improvised approach. Swirling organs dominate the early section, straightening out into a pulsing bass line under laid with snappy snares before exploding into a pounding crescendo. It’s their jagged version of The Doors ‘The End.’

With minimal lyrics the Swans are all about the experience. Entering softly the first track builds until the entire band is repeatedly chanting ‘lunacy’ as if worshipping a pagan deity. Then the tempo dips and with Gira signalling ‘your childhood is over’ you feel you’ve experienced a rite of passage.  There’s a tension that keeps you hooked. ‘Mother of the world’ lurches along accompanied by laboured breathing and ‘The Seer Returns’ has a shambling funky rhythm totally unlike the cacophony of its predecessor. Even the longer, less tuneful, sections keep you listening just to see where it’s going.

It’s not all smooth sailing though. ’93 Ave. B Blues’ veers into performance art territory. Karen O’s guest spot on the country tinged ‘Song for a Warrior’ is also a slight misfire. A shame since she’s a great singer and I’ve always drawn parallels between the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s and the Swans. It’s more the song itself perhaps; almost conventional sounding and doesn’t gel with all the madness before it.

Otherwise the Swans have released an another album that challenges and absorbs. It’s hard to advocate whether ‘newbies’ should start here or not. While it’s their mellowest release to date those expecting traditional song structures are likely to be baffled. It’s also too long for a brief listening session. However the band defies categorisation and that in itself keeps you coming back. I’ve had ‘The Seer’ on repeat for days now and not only just to get through it! By the end you feel you’ve been on a journey and have surfaced somehow cleansed. I’m sure those who’ve followed the band are going to love it.

Whether it works as a way to drown out the dreadful 7 Mate commentary hasnt’ been tested!

About Tom Bally

Born in 1834 Tom Bally was instrumental in establishing the rules of the modern game. It's a little known fact and the rare times he talks about it all he'll say is "that bloody Wills chap got me full of grape one night and the next thing I know he's peacocking around Richmond Paddock like he dreamt up the whole thing on his lonesome. Still I got the last laugh didn't I eh? Introducing the Umpire and all that."

Comments

  1. that the song for a warrior doesn’t gel makes it a fascinating addition to the album. like volcano on soundtracks for the blind or warmth on the great annihilator. it wouldn’t be a swans album without a track or two that are completely at odds with the others.

  2. Earl O'Neill says:

    Good roundup of Swans, Tom, neat to read it, esp on a sports site. Took me back to terrace house loungerooms c late 1980s – jeez, you’d never dance to Swans, would you?

    Story was that punters would chunder at their shows due to skull splitting (and stomach-upsetting) volume.

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