Written by: Dave Cantrell
Swans are this country’s equivalent of the Fall. Now, while you’re guffawing with disbelief, allow me a moment, maybe it’s not as outlandish as it seems. Aside from the obvious fact that both are led by elliptically brilliant and headstrong front men whose singular personae defines each band, both have also, of course, survived from the relative dawn of erratic punk time – the Fall launched in ’77, Swans about five years later – weathering decades of cultural shifts and arbitrary trends by doggedly ignoring them, equally devoted to their own separate brand of irascibility, their individual rudders held fast and steady even as the paths down which they’ve steered have taken them through some truly formidable landscapes, making us follow them to places we might otherwise have chosen not to go. Both bands are deeply lodged in their fans’ psyches (or psychoses) with staunch, unshakable devotion, no matter the detours, no matter the scarce tours or hiatuses, but for me personally, as much as I adore the Fall and have followed them far more closely these last thirty years, the fact remains that the Fall, unlike Swans, have never saved my life.
In 1992 a relationship failure came rather literally from out of left field and left me dangling by threads over the abyss. It was Swans brutal 1984 Young God EP (“I Crawled,” “Raping A Slave” et al) that hauled me back in. Emotionally muted by this sudden thwack to the heart, Michael Gira and then-company (Roli Mosiman, Harry Crosby, still present guitarist Norman Westberg) gave visceral voice to my stunned, stuttering silence, providing deep lungfuls of merciful rage to someone that had had the breath kicked out of him. Charged with a dense, inchoate violence characterized by a howling ocean roar that amounted to the darkest darkness of the soul made audible, that EP was a wolfsbane poultice on a fester that wouldn’t quit. I don’t know what I would have done without it.
In a sense, though, the intensity of that catharsis scared me and as life – and the 90’s – slipped into sunnier shades I let a gulf grow between Swans and my stereo, admitting the occasional incursion – Soundtracks For The Blind got a couple listens – but not being wholly pulled to Swans or anything Gira until Angels of Light came and fetched me some ten plus years ago. Reacquainted, reanointed and back in the fold, the upsurge of Swans since the release of My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky swept me up in its roiling thrall along with the rest of the hordes. Like the Fall, Swans, though in a grander fashion somehow, are a singular, untouchable entity, incomparable and outside most critical scopes. And again like the Fall – even as the similarities will soon fray; there’s no acerbic snark to Swans, for instance, no thunder and beautiful doom to the Fall – there’s not always a lot to be gained from digging into individual tracks. They’re Swans songs (presumably the career-ending/-defining retrospective has been named since the beginning) which should more accurately be considered sonic outbreaks forged from the cathedral-sized blazing dark furnace that fuels the corpus colossus that is the Swans sound. At their essence, in context and texture, Swans songs are about power, seizing then expressing it, letting it out, most often in muscular, hypnotic trances of tough gorgeous noise, intense, absorbing, uncompromised. That they take no prisoners should be taken as a given, as should the presumption that they do it with a darkly magisterial grace. To Be Kind (instructive perhaps to note the implied but unmentioned You’ve Got To Be Cruel..) is little more than further proof of this longstanding band’s mastery of form.
Gestated primarily during Swans’ last tour then fleshed out at Sonic Ranch outside El Paso with the magic-dust recording assistance of John Congleton, the band wastes no time exerting its spell, lead-off track “Screen Shot” throwing us at once into a dire elegance, the initial lure of shadow-sneaking bass (Christopher Pravdica) and the accretive addition of matching, whipping guitar and the creeping grow of percussion providing an undertow of rhythmic persistence that ultimately grounds a captivating litany of conditions and/or objects based on non-existence (“no knife, no mind, no hand, no fear,” and, later, “no dream, no sleep, no suffering“) that seems to suggest – especially as sung in Gira’s warm-but-sinister baritone – a sense of peace obtained via negation, the song exuding a sort of reassuring nihilism but nihilism just the same. Visited by the usual host of effects and layers spinning off a core of immoderate tension, it all adds up to a long burst of menacing glory and you prepare yourself to be lost in the band’s grips for the next couple hours.
‘Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)” has a sliding wooziness – guitarist Christoph Hahn’s lap steel indispensable here – and a nightmarish voodoo vibe that could well summon the ghost of Howlin’ Wolf and a swampland mojoload of others as well. That cut’s cousin, the 34+ minute “Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture,” reminds of the explosive presence Crime & the City Solution brought to startling bear on last year’s American Twilight, a rising-from-the-dead amplitude that cannot be shaken as waves of threatening resonance pound and recede, Gira exhorting almost in tongues before taking the song into a clearing at dusk, the respite not a restful one but rather one dripping with foreboding, the promise of a tension exploding hanging heavy in the air. It does not, unsurprisingly, disappoint on that score, building with a glowering intensity into a martial angel chorale of the unstoppable, the numinous power and light of the ensemble both released and captured. To call it epic is to state the obvious. It is Swans in all their disturbing resplendence, punishing and rewarding with an equal generosity. What’s astonishing is to pause once this track has passed through what would appear to be an exhaustive, excruciating denouement – it’s a trick, don’t believe it. The Toussaint part hasn’t even begun yet – as the song returns to its destructive tribal ecstasies, trailing off with horse hooves and hammered guitars, with screams of keys and a delirium of overall mayhem, to pause and realize anew that this is typical Swans. The sheer brutal dynamism is breathtaking, itself a banal statement at this point in the proceedings.
For further proof where none is needed, slip down the tracklisting to the monumental “She Loves Us” that, over its near seventeen minute length, lurches from an opening guitar hook built on a staccato machine gun relentlessness to a raga trance vocal by Gira as a chorus behind him repeats a five-note mantra – it’s either “no-no-no” or “now-now-now” – like a gaggle of OCD tourettes patients, then taking an excusion into a buzzing, howling, and very troubled field of noise that resolves with what sounds like an aerial bombardment on a Bethlehem Steel factory before the band locks back in to a marching, mauling drone that could easily be constructed atop the disemboweled viscera of the Doors “The End” for all I know. Eventually, as a mad piano bangs incessant, there’s Gira spitting out the phrase “your name is Fuck!” (this time supported by a zombies chorus of “Hallelujah”) with sufficient venom as to shame the Devil for his slacking placid ways all these centuries,.
Completely entrancing and massive, it’s a tour de force except it isn’t. I mean, if ever a band’s material deserved that Gallic accolade it’s Swans’ but it becomes a challenge applying it when nearly every track floods your senses with such an unholy mix of damnation and wonder that the gasp of speechlessness we usually reserve for that rare bowled-over experience is waiting for you at the end of just about every piece they commit to vinyl these days (in To Be Kind‘s case all six sides of it). Now, granted, it’s not always for everyone, there are moments when the dalliance with eardrum abrasion is perhaps enough to try a neophyte’s patience already worn thin by those random noise encounters they’ve endured with Sonic Youth when all they wanted was a live version of Goo, not the stuff itself. But a crucial difference here is one of contextual integrity.
When Swans go tribal industrial it seldom feels anything less than the next flowing element in their sequential narrative arc. They are passages that strike operatic and carry a visual force, it’s Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture reimagined through a dark gothic-urban prism, it’s the true and merciless drama that’s what’s really going on deep down beneath The Rite of Spring. Swans, well beyond anyone else at work in the ‘rock’ world today, deserves those comparisons.
John Peel’s famous comment about the Fall – They are always different, they are always the same – could well be laid transfer-like over Swans but I’m not sure it would be big enough to cover them. In stentorian scale and mortal breadth alone Gira and his conspirators push – and with a fearless impatience – at boundaries Mark E Smith would rather not bother with, choosing instead to leave the Herculean hurling of ominous thunderbolts to others as he scarpers down the pub with a notebook and a keenly jaundiced eye. Gira, meanwhile, like a man feverishly singing anthems conceived in a crematorium, can’t not bear witness to the various desperate hells of this world and fortunately for us he’s afflicted with the undying compulsion to get it out, let it out, and it’s our further good fortune that the medium he’s chosen for the hellishly good works of art that result is the common language of rock and roll. However twisted, however singed charcoal black by the fires of conflict and pain, we still recognize that language and are moved by it, able to hear the hope of the damned as if they were cries from inside the lonely cast of our own existential shadow. Because, in fact, they are.