Swans: 10 Songs to Break the Ice (Part 2)

Welcome to part 2 of our 10-song feature on the band Swans. If you’re just joining us, visit here for part 1.

6. Mother/Father (The Great Annihilator, 1994)

My_Buried_ChildMusically, wherever Swans are at any moment, there is a visible path, a logic, to how they got there. When they went pop with Children of God, it was because going pop was – ironically – the bolder, more experimental thing to do. By the time The Great Annihilator rolled out, the Swans sound had significantly evolved once again, existing as a halfway point between the rather restrained Love of Life, and the inaccessible but brilliant Soundtracks for the Blind, released in 1996.

At no point does The Great Annihilator feel hurried, with its damaged pop and deranged folk arrangements wrapped up in that soupy pace that is so characteristically 90’s Swans. “Mother/Father” provides a bit of a break from the mould, sitting snuggly in the fifth position within the album’s excellent mid-section. The remastered version breathes new life into the song, helping to distinguish between individual instruments and Jarboe’s vocals. I absolutely love the way the guitar comes into the mix at around the 20 second mark. A great song with an intoxicating energy.

7. Love Will Save You (White Light From the Mouth of Infinity, 1991)Love_Will_Save_You

When it comes to what their songs are about, M. Gira and Swans are perhaps the most candid band on the planet. I’ve said it before and I will continue to tout the band’s ability to weave a fresh face onto topics as old as time. This is not to say that they are never tongue-in-cheek, but that either way their music always feels forthright. From a spiritual perspective, one could say that the band gleans as much from the 10 commandments as they do the 10 deadly sins. In that vein, throughout the years, Gira has remained an omniscient narrator, unbiased by the plight of this world, an arm’s length away from the very idea of God that is often his muse.

Here, Gira turns his lens on the notion of love, it’s seemingly unwavering power in the face of pain, fear, loss, and any dark shadow that the world may cast over humanity. Lyrically, Gira espouses love as a force that can stand up to any form of wrath, that it will save even in the face of poisonous air, the evil greed of ignorant man, and above all, one’s self. Despite this, Gira sings “but it won’t save me.” In the end, “Love Will Save You” is still the hopeless, self deprecating Swans that have been there from the beginning, dolled up with a shiny exterior, the waxed apple rotten at the core.

8. The Other Side of the World (Love of Life, 1992)

Love of Life is essentially an extension of White Light…, released the following year and musically almost indistinguishable (Love of Life is maybe a bit more experimental, what with the interludes and all). I like to think of the two as sister albums, produced out of the most accessible era of the band – an era that also included the mostly forgettable industry bomb that was The Burning World. Love of Life was not as innovative a release as Swans were capable of at the time, and in my eyes has aged as a noteworthy transitional record with a few really good songs.

Undoubtedly an A-side standout, “The Other Side of the World” sees the band pare back their sound to let Jarboe do what she does best. Her vocal delivery makes this song, and I especially love the way she elongates the last word in each line of the verse, pushing her voice to great effect. The song is languid and hypnotic, but has enough substance to keep one glued to its progression (which is more than I can say for much of Children of God). Neo-folk, art pop, lounge rock, however you want to think about this era of Swans,”The Other Side of the World” is it done right.

9. Children of God (Children of God, 1987)Children_Of_God

Children of God is spotty, but for its shortcomings it contains at least a few of Swans’ best songs. “New Mind” is a fierce opener, matched in intensity only by the title track: a spellbinding final statement to the album. “Children of God” is Swans at their most visceral, opening with punchy, bass-heavy drums, a keyboard made to sound like an organ, and Jarboe’s angelic voice easing us into the forthcoming tumult.

The song only gains momentum as sheets of guitar noise fill-in any remaining emptiness. The call-and-response vocal treatment that the band has come back to time and again is well and alive here, but done in a subtler way, where it almost comes across as a form of phasing. As the song grinds forward, Jarboe begins to echo herself, the words “We are children / Children of God” seeming to come at you from all possible directions. Take my advice: play this one LOUD.

10. Helpless Child (Soundtracks for the Blind, 1996)Helpless_Child

Still the band’s most challenging work to date, Soundtracks for the Blind might as well have been called Michael Gira’s Dark Twisted Fantasy (errr, sorry). As an album, Soundtracks is over 2 hours of beautiful chaos, encompassing the esoteric and the tame, the oddball disco funk of “Volcano” to the Throbbing Gristle-esque skronk of “Yum-Yab Killers.” The album is rife with ambiguous radio/TV samples, and is as droney as it is poppy. If I absolutely had to choose only one Swans album to listen to for the rest of my days, Soundtracks would be it. It possesses all the best elements of the band in one place. And somehow, in its embraced messiness, it really works.

“Helpless Child” is a favourite among Swans fans, including myself. It’s not too hard to hear why this song is consistently noted as a fan fave, especially for those of us who love post-rock and other instrumental and experimental music. The song begins unassumingly enough, as if it could have been plucked from the Burning World sessions. At the seven minute mark it takes a turn, however, a guitar strumming repeatedly over shimmering ambience before giving way to primitive drums. We soon find ourselves in the midst of an instrumental epic that towers over the back half of the song. At 16 minutes, “Helpless Child” packs the emotional weight of an entire album.

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’ 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 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)


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)


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)


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.