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This 2-disc compilation from 1999 encompasses Cop (LP 1984), Young God (EP 1984), Greed, Holy Money (LPs 1986) and songs from the 3-track EP’s A Screw and Time is Money (Bastard).
On the Black CD, the first 8 challenging tracks come from Cop, the following 4 from Young God plus one each from A Screw and Greed. By far the best music is found amongst the last 6 unless one prefers the noise of the apocalypse slowed down and compressed into one chord, two notes, homicidal hollering and radioactive feedback. The White CD offers astonishing depth and innovation. In this “industrial phase” of Swans, core elements of their later work such as orchestral structures, atmospheric sampling and metaphysical modalities emerge that would continue evolving throughout the band’s fascinating first incarnation.
BLACK CD (1984, 1985). Running time 78:45
The Cop album - tracks 1 to 8 - is auditory and emotional carpet bombing. Themes of violence, loathing, fear and degradation find malevolent expression in Michael Gira’s roars of rage and howls of anguish backed by equally brutal instrumental dissonance. Difficult to classify, the abrasive snail-paced pieces represent a singular, primal “metallics” where discordant guitar riffs and squalls of shriekback assault one another within and against shuddering drum eruptions . It’s one long cacophonic bombardment outside the parameters of “music” but closer than, say, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen. The patient and discerning listener will, however, glimpse fleeting hints of Swans’ later harmonic, melodic and rhythmic genius in some of the tracks which otherwise labour under leaden repetition and an absence or disregard for the basic building blocks of music. The lyrics match the music, alas. Traditionally delivered vocals first emerge on the Young God tracks I Crawled / RaS / Young God /This Is Mine (not the same song as that on Angels of Light’s New Mother). The structured I Crawled signals a shift from the relentless mayhem whilst the stately ballad Sealed In Skin and the piano-graced closing track Fool represent the disc’s loftiest moments. This direction would lead to, inter alia, 1987s gem Children of God with its seemingly gentle yet emotionally charged songs like Our Love Lies, You're Not Real Girl, Real Love and Blind Love.
WHITE CD (1985, 1986). Running Time 78:11
Since the vulture had morphed into a swan by the latter part of the black disc, nothing disappoints on the white one. Rhythmic coherence, melodic sequences and tonal twists provide sleek, stylish hearses for every form of the rage, loathing, anguish and melancholia that persist throughout.
Jarboe’s voice and keyboards bring harmony and haunting tones plus variation in timbre, pitch and modality. Chorales, preludes and contrapuntal lines access multiple dimensions of nuance and mystery. Subtlety and restraint balance Gira’s excesses without sacrificing emotional intensity. In fact, the ominous and sinister become more real.
Time Is Money (Bastard) opens the white disc on an angelic note with Jarboe’s vocalising as anchor for the swaying uptempo rhythms, elegantly contextualising MG’s muffled mumbling. Despite its loathsome sentiment, Time Is Money (Bastard) sounds rather catchy owing to the stomping tempo and alternation of chanted, spoken, sung and shouted vocals.
And the hits just keep on coming! Although repetitive, Money Is Flesh stomps along enjoyably, every plodding beat a drop of lube for the fertile industrial landscape. The beat slows down for Another You where tortured instruments, found sounds and groans about the dynamics of hurting the self in lieu of the other reveal the primordial mind of the abyss. Familiarity with psychopathologies would be helpful but it’s easier just to let the music flow through you. The symphonic structure of Another You foreshadows the “classical” styles Swans would perfect on compositions like Sex, God, Sex and The Most Unfortunate Lie. The lullaby has calmed turbulence for ages and that’s up next! Jarboe’s fragile and breathtaking Blackmail soothes the psyche. ‘Twas providence that sent her to Swans and henceforth her vocals would exquisitely frame Gira's just like her keyboards would enhance the guitars and drums. Another version of Blackmail appears on the 1987 masterpiece Children of God. After this graceful gift, A Screw (Holy Money) exerts an hypnotic effect, initially via the well spaced bursts of static and then through the liturgical mantric chant “holy money, holy love.” Lucrezia Borgia, who pointed out that the lack of money was the root of all evil, would approve.
Fool is revisited as Fool #2 where an empathic team of guitars, drums and pianoforte supports Michael’s aching lament about society’s lies and our own lies and self-delusion. It undulates like gnawing guilt and pulses of remorse. Fool #2 is the ultimate inverse of Piaf’s Non Regrette Rien. Her defiance becomes his cascade of Weltschmerz which remains resistant to hope.
Edith as David, Michael as Job. It’s like being beaten by waves of re gret as you sink into the ocean of oblivion. To misquote the psalmist, “he maketh me drown in waters of weariness, he draineth my soul, I am tossed by the crests and ensnared by the troughs, thy rod and thy staff they afflict me, I yearn for an end to my days with sighs too deep for words”. Fool #2 is the embryonic precursor of those magnificent ballads like God Damn The Sun or Song For My Father.
The weary voice recites Stupid Child which however is uplifted by startling percussive patterns including a compelling rattle. The contrast between groaning delivery and intricate polyrhythmic play lends the song a type of sedative pop appeal. One wonders whether this theme might have manifested in Helpless Child on Soundtracks For the Blind (Hilflos Kind on Die Tür Ist Zu). The child in the Love of Life video and the boy that narrates Identity on Love of Life might be two further avatars of the child.
Anything For You begins in a gentle place which only serves to exacerbate matters as levels of tension rapidly accumulate. What sounds like muffled voices may have been produced by instruments but whatever the case, the song’s brooding beauty resides in this layer of sound. Ominous vocal dynamics weave Nobody into a pathological highlight and then excel themselves on the second version of A Screw which appears to satirize big band jazz and wins one’s heart all over again with its chant to humanity’s two most beloved deities.
Swans’ Heaven has nothing in common with that of Talking Heads where “nothing, nothing ever happens”. It bustles with the movement of blood, broken bodies, the spinning earth, misery and suffering. The guitars resonate to those cosmic motions and emotions with shudders, rumbles and jangling wails. A more oblique agony characterizes Coward where disparate voices, bewildering dialogues and the refrain “I’m worthless” punctuate the edgy beat. The impression is one of extreme anomic retreat. These two deranged dirges surely arose from the same disquieting muse that inspired Like A Drug (Sha La La La). Their wretched dislocation pales before A Hanging since Jarboe’s massed chorales simultaneously caress the ears and amplify the terror – exponentially so where the galloping tribal drums start gaining their galloping momentum. A Hanging shares the mtDNA of Our Love Lies, Warm and My Buried Child. Jarboe’s delicately disturbing torch song You Need Me fades away too soon but her celestial harmonies and Mike’s spooky singing on Greed haunt one’s every hair to stand on end while the arrangement subtly unravels. Thus the white CD concludes with a sense of disintegration. Things fall apart (but they never leave my heart) as Cristina Monet observed.
The industrial Swans influenced a slew of older and contemporary musicians according to the alternative music media. I’ve seen mention of bands like Beyond Dawn, Halo, Godflesh, Sunn O))), Khanate, Jesu, Agalloch, Manufactura, Ministry, Neurosis, Nine Inch Nails, Napalm Death, Navicon Torture Technologies, Methadrone, School of Emotional Engineering, Masochistic Religion and Nadja to mention a few.
But every time I hear the chants on tracks like Time Is Money (Bastard) or A Screw, I remember a song from an industrial cassette compilation someone gave me in the early 1990s. There are contributions by amongst others Bushido, Cabaret Voltaire, Gary Clail, Einstürzende Neubauten, Psychic TV, Mark Stewart & The Maffia, SPK and Nitzer Ebb. Nitzer Ebb is a UK band which formed in 1982, released their first single in 1985 and their first album on the Mute label in 1987. I’ve no idea if they’d ever heard (of) Swans but it’s their chant Smear Body from their debut That Total Age which comes to mind when the Swans chants captivate me.
SUMMARY: I cannot recommend Cop, the first 8 tracks on the black disc. Numbers 9 to 14 are good to great. The white disc gets 9 out of 10. Favourites: Sealed In Skin, Fool, Fool #2, Blackmail, A Screw (Holy Money), Another You, Stupid Child, Anything For You, Nobody, A Screw, A Hanging, You Need Me and Greed. Top Five: Blackmail, Sealed In Skin, Fool #2, A Screw (Holy Money) and A Hanging.
©Pieter Uys, 2014.
Stephen of Styrofoam Boots
Anhedoniac by Jarboe
Beautiful People Ltd by Jarboe and Lary Seven
Dark Consort by Cedric Victor and Jarboe
Forever Burned and Various Failures by Swans
Omniscience by Swans
Thunder: Perfect Mind by Jarboe and Cedric Victor
Die Tür Ist Zu by Swans
©Pieter Uys, 2014.
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