Swans: The Only No Wave Act That Survived

Courtesy of music.newcity.com
Courtesy of music.newcity.com

It’s been nearly 5 months since Swans released their latest album To Be Kind, and I still think it’s top running for my upcoming best of the year list. The latest masterpiece from this legendary New York band is another brutal-yet-beautiful tapestry, and a cumulative one too.  While frontman Michael Gira had said that their previous album, The Seer, was the result “of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined”, this might even apply more-so to their latest opus, which reads almost as a chart for their entire discography. It’s contains serene songs like the Nathalie Neal and the title track, and well as songs like Oxygyn and A Little God in My Hands that push the boundaries of artistic expression in pop music. The thing is, it’s all areas that Swans has explored in their long and fruitful career, it’s just now it’s climaxed into a flowing congratulatory statement. After completing digesting their 30-year plus discography, it’s elementary to see how too.

Although certainly a worthy comparison, it would almost be disservice to call Swans the “darker Sonic Youth.” Although both band gestated in New York’s grimy no-wave scene in the 80s (seemingly spawned by post-punk and urban decay), and they were well-associated with each other, Swans eventually went in a direction even more unpredictable than that of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s seminal noise rock band. Starting out as a more-or-less an avant-garde punk band on their debut, 1983’s Filth, the sound only became more extravagant, yet equally chaotic.  Perhaps the first gestation of their true idiosyncracy emerged on 1987’s Children of God. It was hardly a punk record, as instruments such as pianos, oboes and flutes were used, but it was certainly a brash record too and filled with a declamatory stance (if not necessarily anger). It was arguably the first record that brought their signature themes (religion, power, sex) to the forefront of their catalog, and also established the integral chemistry between singers Gira and Jarboe. Jarboe was a most serene singer, whose vocals were haunting yet beautiful on tracks like In My Garden and the title track, who actually complimented Gira indescribably dense voice.  Although only in his 30s during the recording of this album, Gira still carried a world-weary tone to him, accentuated by his lyrics that were often grotesque, dark, and powerful.

It’s a record that could be seen as definitive to their aesthetic, but perhaps it also might just be the tip of the iceberg. Gira would eventually grow disinterested in making music that was simply loud, and went for a different approach during their period in the 1990s. Come 1991, the band released White Light From the Mouth of Infinitiy, a record that certainly wasn’t quite as loud, but it was equally intense. Starting off the singular track that is Better Than You, the album begins with the recorded vocals of an infant crying, before making shattering leap into a crystalline sound that utilized bells, and powerful drumming. While one could argue that the album took a lyrical downgrade from their peak albums in the 80s simply because Gira’s words aren’t so cryptic this time around, the music and Gira’s penetrating voice continues to accentuate any shallowness the lyrics might hold. It still remains one of the most accomplished Swans records, and one that’s aged particularly well too.

The band would only continue to explore the leanings of White Light From the Mouth of Infinity on their following set of records, and then climaxed with the brilliant  Soundtracks for the Blind. It was their last album before their extended hiatus, and Swans certainly showed they were ready to go out with a most triumphant offering. Their longest album to date at 141 minutes, the song had towering songs with more interest towards sound than ever before. The album showcases Glenn Branca-inspired noise-based orchestrations, Einstürzende Neubauten-esque mechanical droning, and even alternative pop (the Jarboe-sung track “Volcano” almost sounds like a Blondie track done on crystal meth).

Everyone up to this point would have certainly been enough to put Swans as a perennial act in the annals of art-rock history, but 14 years later Gira would surprise fans by revitalizing the band in a most novel way. Reuniting with the band’s original guitarist Normas Westberg, Gira also recruited the new blood of guitarist Christoph Hahn, drummer/percussionist Phil Puleo and drummer Thor Harris, and bassist Chris Pravdica. The band would then release their long-awaited new album My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, which was certainly a Swans record with it’s elegantly dark sound and thematic material concercing God and the afterlife, but there was also a true sense of a rebirth here. After eleven albums and several experimental periods, it would seem that Swans had finally made the true transition from post-punk to post-rock. It was only explored further in their two follow-up albums (the aforementioned The Seer and To Be Kind), which both clocked in at two hours, and featured several appearances from such revered contemporary acts like St. Vincent and Low. Finally, after a career of being a fairly fringe act, it became rightly apparent and earned how important a band Swans truly was towards so many critically heralded acts to follow

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of bands from that oft-forgotten movement that are absolutely pivotal towards the current look of the music scene. Sonic Youth was making alternative rock gritty and accessible years before the Pixies and Nirvana did, and would we have had the Riot Grrrl scene with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks? It’s just Swans is the one band from that grizzled time period that’s not only survived, but reinvented themselves in a unique, yet completely organic way. I have no idea what direction the 60-year old Michael Gira will take his Swans next, but it’s ostensible that it will be with more vitality, originality and resonance than that from most musician half his age could ever hope to obtain.