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Class ?

Main Category: Mope Rock
Also applicable: Avantgarde, Punk/Grunge
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Swans fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Swans fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1983
Overall rating = 10


Best song: wait a sec until I shake the fuzz from my ears...

Track listing: 1) Stay Here; 2) Big Strong Boss; 3) Blackout; 4) Power For Power; 5) Freak; 6) Right Wrong; 7) Thank You; 8) Weakling; 9) Gang; [BONUS TRACK:] 10) Swans Live At The Kitchen, NYC 1982/83.

It's kinda funny to realize that the Swans crawled out of the same manhole that Sonic Youth did, and the two even made their full-fledged LP debuts in the same year. I mean, they have a lot in common, certainly, but where the Sonics were dabbling in meek wimpy sexual-tinged mystique, these guys went for a totally brutal sadistic approach from the beginning. I guess the Birthday Party were closest in style, but at least the Birthday Party had actual songs, with guitar melodies and lyrics and a guy who alternated screaming with singing and you know...

...the Swans are no sissies. Here's the first thing you hear when you push the play button and 'Stay Alive' comes in: a blast of industrial feedback, and then a grinding pounding bassline and an equally grinding jarring drum rhythm kicking in, and this guitar-bass-drums combo keeps on going for five minutes, the only distracting elements being occasional extra percussion fiddling and isolated bits of aggressive screaming from a guy who sounds like the guy in Slayer. And if you know how the first track on here actually sounds, you know the rest. The most amazing thing about it is that the resulting product does not suck.

There's one thing that renders the Swans' music somewhat accessible, and that's rhythmics. It's weird, but this ain't truly dissonant stuff (unless you count Michael Gira's constant "vocal battling" with the other instruments). It's also pretty compact and concise, and though the songs threaten to fall apart any minute, they never really do, because the rhythm section always keeps things together. And keeps things together well; you could, in fact, be on perfectly safe ground comparing the Swans at this point to a drugged-out, slowed-down, brutalized version of Can. The grooves these guys are setting are dirty, filthy, and ear-destructive, but they're still fun, and they're extremely professional and well-planned.

Of course, I really can't see anybody perceiving Filth as truly "dark" or "depressing", of course (not in the modern age, at least), because there's way too much of that obnoxious in-yer-face "brutality" that's pretty cheesy: you're not going to make me shiver in fear with lines like 'cut out the infection, beat up the violator, gag him, then screw him down, hammer the nail' ("Gang"). Geez, the lyrics are bad, and I hope that this single quotation is enough to eliminate the need of your looking up the lyrics sheets; believe me, the Swans are not your average hardcore outfit, nor do they have anything to do with death metal. Taken together with the fact that Gira's constant screaming starts getting on my nerves by the second track, I'd sure have preferred they made this a purely instrumental album.

But if it ain't "depressing", it's definitely aggressive, and with its monumental rhythmic work and guitarist Norman Westerberg's extremely creative use of the power of his instrument, it takes the concept of "aggression" to a whole new level. I have already mentioned how 'Stay Here' establishes a simple, but effective groove by merely having Norman play bunches of "dirty rotten feedback" with something like ten second intervals in between while the rhythm section pounds away like mad in classic industrial fashion. On 'Big Strong Boss', they speed up the tempo and have the guy play a more distinct, though still extremely dirty, guitar riff, while the percussion section hammers their stuff into your brain until you're ready to scream. So scream! This is musical therapy through sadism! Hey, chances are, if you're a normal guy and can actually survive this, your inner sadist/rapist/murderer instincts will be fully satisfied! (Then again, if you're an unstable kinda guy, you'd better be off listening to 'Joshua Fit The Battle' or something like that).

Granted, even if you're fully stable, it's not quite understandable how you could sit through nine tracks o' this stuff in a row if you're not a dedicated psycho reviewer like yours truly. They all sound exactly the same, except a couple are relatively faster and a couple are relatively slower. I think when I get to the second side, only 'Thank You' gets some particular attention from me, because for once the "groove" starts sounding like a real song, mainly because Norman plays more notes within his riff than usual. The others are cool, but offer nothing new to the experience, and actually after a while I start realizing that once you get this particular brand of sound worked out in between you and your band, you can chop up these grooves like hotcakes - all it takes is write a new set of lyrics like 'cut your noses, hold your hoses, squeeze out the blood, kill your emotions, rape your goldfish' or something like that, fiddle a little bit with the riff and the rhythm from the previous song you wrote and there you have it, a new number. Regardless, it will still sound cool.

And if, like me, you have this album on a 2-CD edition that pairs it together with Body To Body, at the end of the album you'll also have a 20-minute track called 'Swans Live At The Kitchen', with a bunch of songs performed live before an audience of few brave ones whose noble names we''l probably never learn (but at least you can probably guess the total number of people present at the show by analyzing the applause). The sound quality is worse than audience bootleg - and I guess it was taken from one - and most of the songs are present on Filth already, and their live sound doesn't differ from the studio sound one iota, so the "bonus" is totally unnecessary, but then again there's this line of logic, too, that says having something is better than not having it, even if the something in question is a pile of porcupine droppings, so let's settle on that, I guess.



Year Of Release: 1991
Overall rating = 10

Aaarrrgh! MORE filth!

Best song: no no no, I'm not falling for that one again.

Track listing: 1) I'll Cry For You; 2) Red Sheet; 3) Loop; 4) Your Game; 5) Seal It Over; 6) Whore; 7) We'll Hang For That; 8) Half Life; 9) Loop; 10) Get Out; 11) Job; 12) Loop 1; 13) Mother, My Body Disgusts Me; 14) Cop; 15) Only I Can Hear, Only I Can Touch; 16) Thug; 17) Raping A Slave.

If you look real real close at the album cover, you might be able to discern what it says there in those blinding white letters - that this album is a collection of rare and unreleased tracks from the band's career spanning the first four years of their existence. An impressively long collection, too, and given that these days the album is mostly available as a 2-CD edition joined with Filth, this gives you a more-than-you-ever-needed-to-know overview of the Swans' early "glory days".

To put this a different way, this is Filth Vol. 2, with no particular surprises. The same standard formula is preserved on almost all of the songs: slow, gruesome, dirty, hideously produced "grooves" based on minimalistic feedback-drenched guitar "riffs" that anybody could have technically mastered in about three minutes each and Gira's atonal screaming (I haven't bothered checking out the lyrics this time, but I don't suppose I missed on much - song titles like 'Raping A Slave' or 'Mother, My Body Disgusts Me' pretty much say it all).

The only reason it doesn't get a lower rating than Filth is that the record is even more bold and audacious in its uncompromised nature than that one. Pretty much nothing disrupts the flow of this Gestapo-influenced music, and you may be sure that the intense pain, the ear-destroying fuzz, and the unconcealed masochistic sensation will last you through all of its seventy-three minutes. So where it loses in originality (if a collection of "outtakes" and rarities like these can be judged by this parameter anyway), it gains in intensity and pure brutality.

The interesting thing is, at a certain point you do start to realize that there are actual melodies in the songs - which is all the more obvious when you compare them to the ones that obviously do not have any melodies whatsoever, like the cult Swans classic 'Raping A Slave', for instance. I have no idea why this one is often called the quintessential, or the best, Swans song: probably exactly because of the fact that it's just a bunch of incoherent noise boasting even worse production than usual (on this version, anyway). My tolerance really doesn't amount to stuff like this, which essentially just bores me and certainly doesn't prove to be demonstrating the band's talent at all. The only good thing about it is that it really helps highlight the more "melodic" stuff.

'Seal It Over', for instance - now that one's a good groove. On first listen you could find this an unlistenable atonal mess, something like a particularly bad King Crimson improv jam, but it isn't: the rhythm section is actually pounding out a steady, repetitive rhythm, and then in the background you actually get a riff, even if it does sound like a particularly squeaky see-saw that never seems to know when to stop (come to think of it, it might as well be a see-saw). And 'Your Game', that one actually wouldn't sound out of place on an Alice In Chains album, with a near-classic grungey riff and all. Except that Alice In Chains would make it heavier and more bombastic through better production.

In any case, the band's rhythmic skills are still showing, and the album seems to be even heavier on the rhythm section than Filth - many of the tracks come close to, or even could be easily qualified as, industrial. But hey, these guys aren't as smart as the industrial pioneers, and they aren't pretending to be. They just want to cause pain, nothing more. That's why lots of the tracks exceed the five-minute border - any "groove" like this, however cleverly constructed, will start driving you nuts when played for over a minute, and then there's a couple of nine-minute "epics"? Bother! And as far as 'breathers' go, it's a complete joke - there are those minute long "loops" in between some of the songs, mainly just percussion-meets-feedback loops that really repeat themselves over and over until they're replaced by the actual "songs". That's kinda like trying to quench your thirst with salt water.

So Body To Body is even more of an acquired taste than its predecessor (and definitely much more of an acquired taste than the "mellower" Swans albums that would follow). I am even more tempted to put this stuff down than ever before, but there are always two things that stop me - a) the number of actual musical (and other ideas) contained and b) the factor of originality. Whatever you might say, Body To Body isn't an "empty" album. There might only be one mood, one general pattern to it, but - heck - this is a special statement of its kind. It's a soundtrack to the personification of dumb, primal brutality, composed and performed in a way much less compromised than anybody before. Hate it if you wish - hell, I probably hate it myself, and there's no question that I won't ever be listening to it. I mean, Gira and company would be naive if they thought they were doing this "music" for people to love it. This is supposed to provoke a gut-level hate reaction; if you do not have one, you must have a serial killer living deep within you. It would be much worse if it just left you with no emotional reaction at all.



Year Of Release: 1986
Overall rating = 11

Boy, these guys were on a roll in 1986. Post-industrial cynicism rules!

Best song: they're kinda look-alikey to me, you know. Okay: NOBODY. Or GREED.

Track listing: 1) Time Is Money (Bastard); 2) Money Is Flesh; 3) Another You; 4) Blackmail; 5) A Screw (Holy Money); 6) Fool; 7) Stupid Child; 8) Anything For You; 9) Nobody; 10) A Screw; 11) Heaven; 12) Coward; 13) A Hanging; 14) You Need Me; 15) Greed.

The new look Swans, with the addition of FBI agent daughter and one-time-unorthodox-sex-admirer Jarboe, certainly don't sound too much like the Swans of three years ago. Before we proceed to discussing the timeless transcendent values of their glorious art in its new incarnation, let me remark that the album I'm actually reviewing is a much later "merger" of the band's two 1986 LPs, Greed and Holy Money, with a couple tracks remixed and rearranged and still a couple more added from a couple more 1986 singles. I've thought, at one time, to reinstate historical justness and review the two separately, but then some of my braincells exploded in a really nasty kind of way and plus, I decided that the two albums really make one good ensemble. They're both thematically and musically linked (with the dollar sign, of course!), both stylistically uniform, and besides, it'd be real murder to try and put the songs back in chronological order.

So I guess if the Swans want their 1986 music to be compactly collected in one place like that, let it be so. Who am I to argue with a band that bases solid melodic hooks on constant repetition of the line 'Suck ass! Suck ass!'? Or was that 'Sarcasm! Sarcasm!' Or 'Circus! Circus!' Whatever, I'm too lazy to go search for the lyrics on the Internet. In any case, that's inside the very first song on here, 'Time Is Money', and as it comes along you know your life will never be the same again. I mean, who can resist such a tremendously powerful half-industrial, half-disco beat? No guitar at all? Just various layers of percussion and screaming vocals? Ah, we're in Einstürzende Neubauten heaven!

Seriously now, on this album the band just totally leaves behind the blinding grinding guitar assault and seems intent on telling everybody that they can make it with mere percussion, at times augmented with pianos and - surprise surprise - brass instrumentation. As a result, the music is not so much depressing and suicidal as it is just mean, ugly, and smelly. It is also, I'm afraid, not as inventive as before; after all, how many more things can you do with a repetitive percussion loop than with a couple of distorted paranoid six-strings? But the interesting thing is that it actually might be better than before. The compositions are still stylistically identical, but this time they are usually more memorable, and the repetitive loops actually give them identities - thus, 'Time Is Money' will never be confused with the ensuing 'Money Is Flesh', because, although both songs are based on never-changing percussion cycles, the cycles are different. 'Time Is Money' is faster and more disturbing, almost makes you wanna headbang in an eminently violent way, leaving dents in your walls and pieces of brain on your trousers. 'Money Is Flesh' is slower, meaner and about as subtle as a dusty jackhammer. How can they be confused?

Then there's 'Another You', where the guitars actually appear and it all sounds like a cross between a particularly cruel Jim Morrison dirge and the Stooges' 'We Will Fall' - at almost eight minutes, it's the most unnecessary track on the album. But just as you're ready to cover your head with ashes saying that the Swans sold out to the cheap Goth scene, along comes 'Blackmail' and it's - guess what? - it's a piano ballad, sung (or, rather, cooed) in a very pretty manner by Jarboe, the likes of which hadn't yet been seen on a Swans album. Well, okay, it's not really a "ballad", more like a cross between a lullaby and a requiem, but it's exclusively gentle and tasteful all the same.

From then on, the album settles into a permanent groove and never really lets go, although it never really grabs you that much either. All the other songs are about five minutes long, with well-defined "melodies" that actually grow on you the more you listen to them. Thematically, it's all the same - themes of pretty much every possible negative emotion/impression you can imagine; but what else did you expect of the Swans? Car songs these guys write not. It's hard to name anything that stands out more than the rest, but I guess 'Nobody' does have one of the better "hooks", with a three-chord sequence played over and over again with Jarboe's siren-like scary vocals wailing in the background. I also like the songs where they utilize the brass section, like 'A Screw', which is almost proto-techno with all of its electronic beats, but the minimalistic brass meshes in perfectly with the melody. Jarboe as lead vocalist reappears on the ultra-short "soulful" piano snippet 'You Need Me', which certainly should have been a little bit longer than its pitiful one minute and twenty seconds; and then the album (in its new form) closes with 'Greed' which is kind of like a second version of 'Nobody', but with more guitar and even more ominousness.

Anyway, this is all listenable and not particularly offensive to the ear. You could say it's the Swans actually commercializing their sound, which is, of course, a very rough statement (there's no commercial potential here whatsoever), but it still shows that the band was obviously way too tired of their "hardcore" monstruosity and was trying to mellow out at least in some way. In doing so, they are certainly moving 'backwards' as long as they seem to be falling into the same rut where some of their industrial colleagues found themselves long before, but they're also writing better songs in general, and Jarboe's influence has definitely been positive here.


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