Swans: 10 Songs to Break the Ice (Part 1)

In honour of the forthcoming reissue of one of Swans’ best albums, The Great Annihilator (5/5/17), I have taken on the challenge of creating a simple, 10 song guide to cracking into the vastly complex and intimidating catalog of this excellent band. Swans have been active for over 30 years, and in that time the band has transformed enormously – a quick scroll through their wiki page is enough to get a sense of this. However, as Aaron Lariviere points out in Stereogum’s ranking of the Swans catalog, there really is no obvious entry point to the Swans discography.

Years ago I, too, could see no obvious entry point, so I took on the enormous task of listening to and digesting every Swans album in chronological order. At times the job was so daunting that I often became listless in the face of it, especially with the early material that saw a sound so consistently brutal that it was hard to distinguish songs for their individual merits. However, I really wanted to know this band, and not just know them, but know them intimately. I persisted, and have been handsomely rewarded with countless hours of immersive listening, often times bizarre, beautiful, uplifting and soul crushing all in the same session. Now that I’ve broken through to the other side, I can say for certain that this band truly is one of music’s greatest entities.

Swans are as important to the shape of modern music as bands like Radiohead and My Bloody Valentine, but unfortunately their presence is as intimidating as the Sun’s, appreciated by people from afar, but burning too hot and too bright to go anywhere near. So, think of this list as your footbridge toward the Sun, made up of ten stones to ease you into the indelible majesty of Swans. Where you go from here is up to you, and the one thing I can promise is that once you get sucked into the world that is the music of Swans, not only will you not be able to look back, you absolutely won’t want to.

1. New Mind (Children of God, 1987)

New_Mind

‘New Mind’ has a ferocious energy. At this point, Swans were a band looking to shed their past and move into fresh, uncharted territory, and they did just that. Gone is the slurry of sawing guitars and suffocating noise of the first three albums, replaced with a new kind of anger, still brutal, but more precise. The thread of religion, fear, and sex that pulsates throughout Children of God all starts here, with Gira howling “let the light come in / damn you to hell”.’New Mind’ embodied the crossover of first generation Swans with a newer, folk driven sound, and it remains as powerful a statement as ever.

2. Cop (Cop, 1984)

Cop

Cop is the gnarliest Swans would ever get. Even next to the brutality of Filth, Cop feels all the more caked in grime, as if birthed from the depths of a bottomless sewer. This album truly is the thing of nightmares, but its appeal exists far beyond shock factor, and hasn’t become more ham-fisted with age, only more intrinsic to the Swans catalog as a whole.

When it comes to first generation Swans, Holy Money is easily the band’s most sonically diverse – Jarboe joining the band had a big part in this – and objectively I would say it is the “best” album from this era. It’s Cop, however, that I come back to for it’s unrelenting, raw expression. Hard to pick a favourite song here, but the title track probably serves as the best gateway, with its morphine-induced pace and down-right disturbing lyrics: “nobody rapes them like a cop / with his club.” When I need to scratch that teeth-grinding itch, this is still what I reach for.

3. Oxygen (To Be Kind, 2014)

Oxygen

When Gira and long-time Swans guitarist Norman Westberg reignited the band in 2010, they took Swans – along with members both old and new – into yet another defining era. No one could have guessed an album like The Seer coming out of this new formation, let alone the masterpiece that is To Be Kind. The album is not for those looking to squeeze in some listening time on the 20-minute commute to work. It is a full-blown epic, with the type of long form foreshadowed on Soundtracks for the Blind and The Great Annihilator, but not fully realized until The Seer.

“Oxygen” is one of the more concise of To Be Kind’s statements, and it still clocks in at 8 minutes. Gira’s vocal delivery, and the song’s overall energy is reminiscent of “New Mind,” but the production is way bigger, while the whole thing is so propulsive, starting out as a light jog and ending in an out-right sprint. As if attempting to evoke some sinister carnival, “Oxygen” unfolds like a fever dream in fast forward. By the time Gira starts barking like a dog, you’ve already lost your mind.

4. The Seer Returns (The Seer, 2012)

Seer_Returns

In the context of The Seer, “The Seer Returns” could not have been sequenced any better (the CD version, not the LP version that has it at the very end). At this point in the album, the listener has just been dismantled by the 32-minute title track, one of Swans’ most densely woven and all around brilliant pieces. “The Seer Returns” grounds the album once again, and in the process puts the listener back together, providing the necessary structure to continue to drive the album forward.

Like many of the stand-outs from the youngest era of the band, “The Seer Returns” is driven by monstrous percussion and a ceaseless insistence to just keep the flow going. It’s that ensuing state of hypnosis from riffing on the same elements over and over, coupled with ghostly background vocals and bold production, that make for another valuable addition to the Swans canon, and another ideal introduction to the band’s music.

5. A Screw (Holy Money) (Holy Money, 1986)

A_Screw_Holy_Money

Swans are one of the hardest bands to define because they never have stuck to singular sound. They were early noise rock and industrial pioneers, but one can hear a strong post-punk current in a lot of the band’s earlier work as well. “A Screw (Holy Money)” is one of those rare songs that seems to encompass all the sides of Swans in one place.

The band experimented with this song a lot, as the two alternate versions on the A Screw EP can attest. While those alternate takes are interesting in their own right, the album version best captures the percussion, which is so repetitive it almost sounds mechanized. For whatever reason the drums really work, and Gira’s quiet vocal delivery adds a particular sinister element that crops up throughout the early albums. With Holy Money, it’s hard to grasp the extent at which the band evolved from past albums with any isolated song, but “A Screw (Holy Money)” is a great place to start nonetheless.

Visit Part 2 here.

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