Swans, Early Ruminations, 1981-1997 –
One evening in 1981, the members of a New York City band called Circus Mort agreed to call it quits. Two of them, Jonathan Kane and Michael Gira, left the rehearsal space to get beer and cigarettes, and by the end of the night they had begun a new band called Swans, under Gira’s direction. Kane stayed with Swans less than two years and many other members have come and gone; only Gira has remained constant and for thirty years Swans has been his personal pursuit of the same untailored nihilism pursued by Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Strauss, and Yeats. Buttressed by No Wave rebar, Swans rebuilt the psychedelic castle with open-tuned guitar sound sheets and sonic cement. Yet at heart it was always pure and minimal American blues. (To wit, Kane traced his percussion over Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil”). Tipped onto it all were Gira’s epigramatic narrations. And they began to stun New York hipsters, jaded from five years already of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and DNA. As Kane recollects, “they looked like the audience during Springtime for Hitler in The Producers.”
Weakling, from Filth, (1983)
Gira was never trained as a musician but he knew exactly the sounds he wanted. The first five Swans albums were exercises in surreal, percussion-driven abstraction, violent near to signal-loss, yet slow nearly to the point of stochastic interminableness; howling storms of disorientation contained in a gray celluloid frame. Or, as a Trouser Press writer put it glibly, “Sister Ray” played at half-speed. Such extensions of form simulated both the embracing and casting aside of the usual influences: SPK’s déjà la of madness, the minimal pulse of Suicide, the extended blood-letting of Hermann Nitsch, plus Throbbing Gristle-style tape loops, echoes of The Cramps and Eno. But always it was about transubstantiation and violence—and other things that have helped keep the band under the radar for thirty years. And yet Gira sees his early material as joyful and majestic. Swans are, after all “majestic, beautiful looking creatures. With really ugly temperaments.”
Swans’ early period performances were made as loud as possible, occasionally causing some audience members to lose balance and vomit or the police to arrive and stop the show. Gira himself would often leave the venue coughing up blood from the intensity he generated. “I’d throw my body on the stage, get up, throw my body on the monitors, break my ribs, and I didn’t feel it,” he says. “It was like making the world into a whirlpool, lifting you up. It was exceptionally wonderful. It wasn’t negative in the least.” Then, he adds: “I guess in the lyrics it might have been a touch negative. But it went with the time.” At several mid-80s shows in Europe, Swans ordered the lights switched off and the doors locked so that the audience would simply have to take it. The legends of these events are exceeded only by stories from the making of Pasolini’s Salo.
Unbelievably, the modus operandi was not to mirror the ugliness of the world, but rather to overwhelm it, to outdo it, so to speak, with joy; to create a music so loud and overpowering that it would annihilate our corporeal bodies—to make the Kierkegaardian leap, and thereby attain eternal consciousness. But early Swans is not an exclusively emotional experience. There is an anti-Manichaean Modernism at the core of the entire project. “I have a hard time understanding the difference between ‘dark’ and ‘light’ personally,” says Gira. “There’s lots of joy in my music, always has been, and I really loathe being portrayed in the press as some sort of morose doom-meister.” It was perhaps Swans’ complete unwillingness to compromise which directed their lyric topicality to “basic states of being”, such as pain, obedience, anguish and redemption: “I don’t feel pain / I never escape / I’m under the bed / I’m licking the floor” or “Blood runs black / Cut my throat / Kill me, snake / Do what I say”. The paradox is found in simultaneous obliteration and vivification: “The act of resignation,” writes Kierkegaard, “does not require faith, but to get the least little bit more than my eternal consciousness requires faith, for this is the paradox.”
The bludgeon approach, relying as it did so heavily on its own musical limitations, soon evolved. The appearance of the mythical Jarboe, whose presence ignited the retreat of the Swans glacier, revealed warmer climes, and at times crueler fangs. Gira began working with acoustic guitar, piano, and other simple elements, to expand. He stopped barking and developed an oaky baritone. Further diversity was forced upon the band during a tour in Eastern European, where a lack of functioning PA’s forced them to adjust their entire approach. Subsequent records made heavy use of baroque structures, and others were entirely acoustic. The late 1980s also marks the introduction of specifically religious motifs in Swans records.
Though the next several records of this new phase, among them Children of God and The Burning World, took a concern with religious questions, neither these influences nor the results sink below Gira’s perfected contradictions. Instead he sharpens the grain of his anti-didactic haze through use of contrast and counterpoint. The constant contrasts must be taken in balance. “It’s like reading Beckett,” he writes. “If you start thinking too much, you’ll never read it. You have to just let it flow through you and accept it.” Gira claims much of the material from this period was, in fact, inspired by a study of televangelist method. “They are great rock performers,” he claims. “You know, Jerry Falwell, and Jimmy Swaggert. To me, they were amazingly electrified rock performers. The way they would work up a crowd. So I started listening to their language.”
Failure, from White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (1991)
In 1989 Swans released what was to be their first and only record on a major label, The Burning World, on Uni/MCA. Bill Laswell produced it and in doing so, shifted the acoustic anchor left, in favor of pop melodies, and into a new, less worthwhile kind of nausea. Most of the songs sound like sea shanties. Gira’s lyrics continued to spin webs of depression, death, greed and despair, but on this record he actually sings a la Johnny Cash. They even covered “Can’t Find My Way Home”. In spite of the record’s final ten seconds, which I take to be the finest musical distillation of ambivalence since Mahler, The Burning World was, in Gira’s words, “a big fuck up. There’re a few good things on it, I think. After we recovered from the terrible anguish of that piece of shit experience I moved on and kept expanding the sound in ways that you know.”
The Other Side of the World, from Love of Life (1992)
White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (1991), Love of Life (1992), Soundtracks for the Blind (1996) and the other mid-90s releases combine all Swans’ strengths, resulting in records more complex than ever before. Forms range from barbed hymns of betrayal to open-mouthed attempts at total experience, à la Francis Bacon. Failure, blindness, punishment, temptation, ideals, damnation, regret, paedophilia, and the night stars whose atomic power keeps us all alive and yet can bring instant death as well. Tracks like “Why Are We Alive?” and “The Other Side of the World” trace light years of mystery over the constant “feeding and shifting of the universe”; the instability of matter and the possibility of transmutation. “I don’t believe in an entity that is omniscient and sits there and manipulates the universe like a chessboard but I do have a sense of the strangeness and mystery of existence,” he writes. “There’s this notion of every molecule in the universe being inhabited by an intelligence that is always just imagining itself. As the molecules change and shift that is thought, that is energy. It’s a dream the entire universe is having. There isn’t really one being because, as you know, your body is liquid, it’s melting and changing and shifting.”
Upcoming Beatific Annihilation_Part 2
Swans, My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, Young God Records, 2010