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Ugly Duckling? No, Swans Are Something Much More Wonderful

Swans have never enjoyed mainstream success in the same way that bands such as, say, Radiohead or Mogwai have. You’d be hard pressed to walk down a street or through a field of tents at Splendour In The Grass and spot someone sporting some of their merch. They aren’t the most accessible of bands, with their last three albums hovering around the 2-hour mark. For those who do know of them though, they are legends.

Almost everyone who has been to one of their live shows has a different story, about something Gira did, or what songs they played, or how they ended the show. Swans are one of the relatively few bands that can still awe fans. So, as we send a farewell wave towards Swans as they exist in their current iteration, it’s time to look back at what they have given us, and show that they might just be one of the most incredible bands to grace our ears.

If you’re looking for a balanced critique or a scathing review on the band’s music and actions over the years, blasting their controversies, you should look somewhere else. There is a near limitless well of think-pieces and angry blog posts about why Michael Gira is the worst man to ever live and Swans should be boycotted and forgotten to annals of time. I personally don’t agree with boycotting a band over what their lead did many years ago, but I’m not going to wax lyrical over that. If you want to hate Swans, that’s your prerogative. This is a love letter to a band that changed the musical lives of so many, and whose music could be considered by some to be a spiritual text.

The band emerged in 1982 from the mind of Michael Gira, who formed the band with Jonathan Kane, Mojo, Thurston Moore, Sue Hanel and Daniel Galli-Duani. Their initial sound was very raw and post-industrial, it was abrasive and experimental and, above all, it was powerful. Their noise-rock influence can be seen on their first album Filth, one that remains worshipped amongst fans of the “original Swans.” It’s a brilliant record, one that will strip the wax from your ears as you listen. The unholy trinity of power, noise and lust placed into sound.

From there, Swans released a series of albums, picking up critical traction and a cult following. Their roster changed too, with members leaving and returning along with new additions to the band over the years. Only Gira remained throughout the entirety, steadfast and ready to see his brainchild through anything.

In 1986, the band released Greed, with a new vocalist added to the roster. Jarboe, who fell in love with Swans upon hearing Filth and joined the band as a singer/keyboardist. With her came a shift in the musical style of the band, the defining violent edge and overt brutality beginning to wane. Greed was the shifting point in the original era Swans, as it was dark and ominous, but less noisy or colossal. Children Of God further expanded on this shift, pulsing with energy but holding back. This was also one of their first records to seize on the thematic stylings that would come to define post-reformation Swans. It relied heavily on religious imagery and spiritual stories, often juxtaposed against each other.

Swans’ music became less savage after Children Of God, with Gira professing his tiredness at their reputation for being fearsomely noisey. He and Jarboe began their own side project, titled Skin or World Of Skin (in the US). The band even signed to Uni/MCA Records, where they released The Burning World. Produced by Bill Laswell, it was significantly less… Swans-like than anything they had ever done before. It featured conventional pop melodies and while the usual themes of death and depression where there, they were sung rather than chanted. Heavier elements were dropped in favour of folk and world music instrumentation.

A number of albums were released afterwards, but the band would be somewhat disillusioned until the release of The Great Annihilator, considered one of the more accessible records in their catalogue. It would be overshadowed, however, by Soundtracks For The Blind, an epic 2 hour and 20 minute long journey than comprised everything Swans. Post-rock, post-industrial and noise all came together to mix with their more acoustic melodies and classic Swans themes to create something astonishing. After a tour following the release of Soundtracks For The Blind, the band split in 1997.

Soundtracks For The Blind by Swans

I will largely skip over the years between their breakup and subsequent reformation. Not because they aren’t interesting, but because they don’t really involve Swans. Gira went off to pursue a moderately successful solo career, significantly more acoustic than Swans was.

Eventually, in 2010, Swans reformed. The lineup consisted of longtime Swans guitarist Norman Westberg, Christoph Hahn, Phil Puleo, Thor Harris and Gira. The first release was the 40 minute My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, which seemed like an extension on Gira’s solo releases. It was a dark, depressing country/blues album and it was jarring to longtime fans. Musical progression and maturing is one thing, but this was something else. Minds were put to ease, however, with the release of The Seer.

The Seer was a masterpiece. It had everything that made a Swans album great, and then some. The thematic base was that of “insanity,” and it saw the return of chanting and religious symbolism. The long, droning chords on the title track were something new but it showed that, while they had changed, it was certainly for the better.

The Seer launched to critical acclaim and even charted in some regions. They followed its success with, in my opinion at least, a better album in To Be Kind. Building on the base of “love,” the band crafted a 2 hour long epic, similar to The Seer but more thematically consistent. It works better as an album, and is more coherent.

To Be Kind by Swans

And with the release of The Glowing Man (an album I think is yet better than To Be Kind), Swans bid us farewell, in their current form at least. Gira has resolved to keep making music under the name of Swans, but only time will tell if it will be the same. But evolution is a key part of Swans’ philosophy. Comparing Filth to The Glowing Man, it’s hard to find even a single connecting thread. From going to a band that crushes to one that entrances its listeners is not an easy task, but Swans have managed to become a spiritual force to many.

Goodbye, Swans. I pray we’ll meet again soon.

Image: Swans