Archive for May, 2009

A beginners guide to the music of Swans

Posted on Sunday, May 24th, 2009

Swans are perhaps the single biggest influence on the burgeoning doom / sludge / drone scene aside from the obvious likes of Black Sabbath. New York’s Dan Bukszpan wrote a beginners guide to the music of Swans:

One of the unexpected wonders of being in my band, Slow Horse, is that I have been interviewed on numerous occasions by numerous publications, something which still surprises me to this day. While all the interviewers have their own styles and their own questions that they like to ask armchair rock stars like myself, one question invariably comes up every single time: ‘Who are your influences? I always list the same three.

The first is Black Sabbath, which is a no-brainer; this one comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone. The next one is Neil Young. Again, a no-brainer. Almost everyone who sings, plays guitar, and has an inflated sense of one’s own songwriting ability can count him as an influence to some degree, whether they admit it or not. And finally, the third influence I will cite is my fellow New Yorkers, Swans.

Unlike Black Sabbath and Neil Young, Swans have never achieved mainstream notoriety, and likely never will. However, for people like me, they are one of the most important things to happen in music in the last quarter of the 20th century. The visceral impact and emotional depth of their music is unlike anything else out there, before or since.

Swans are certainly not for everybody, but if you are a fan of stark, repetitive, oppressively slow dirges and have never heard the Swans’ music before, then hopefully this guide might just come in handy.

Swans - 1984 by Lee Ronaldo

Swans - 1984 by Lee Ronaldo

Swans’ original albums are sadly almost all out of print, but they have all been reissued for the most part in a series of 2-disc collections, almost all of which represent their entire catalog, with just a couple of exceptions. Their recorded output spans the years 1982 to 1997, and there are many who consider the band’s career to be broken up into several ‘periods’, a notion which has been reinforced by the anthology style of these new reissues.

The first reissue, Filth/Body to Body, Job to Job, covers the years 1982 to 1985. The music made during this time is their most abrasive and least accessible, so this collection can represent a truly grueling couple of hours’ worth of music to the unprepared. It consists of the  Filth EP (their very first recording) and the Body to Body, Job to Job collection, which was a CD/LP release in 1990 of all their unreleased early material from this period, alternate recordings, as well as newly recorded ambient sound loops mixed in with the older material.

Swans - Body To Body Job To Job

Swans - Body To Body Job To Job

This collection features as a bonus a live recording from 1982 at New York’s Kitchen club, and a live nine-minute version of the song ‘Raping a Slave’. While all the live music together only represents about 33 minutes, it goes a long way towards showing what a devastating live unit this band was, even early on.

The second reissue covers the years 1984 to 1986, and collects the four separate EP’s made during this time. There is some overlap in the material, because the Swans would often record radically different versions of the same song many different times. For example, the song ‘Your Property’, which would turn up several more times on future albums, makes its debut here. The set also includes the studio version of ‘Raping a Slave’, as well as the song ‘Half Life’, which in my personal opinion is quite simply one of the heaviest pieces of music ever made, period.

The second disc of this set shows the first noticeable stylistic changes, such as an expanded use of other instruments, more elaborate textures, and most importantly, the addition of the female singer Jarboe. Naturally, this is where the hard-core fans of the earlier material decided to jump ship, but this was the material that was my first exposure to the band and that made me a fan in the first place. The highlights of this disc include the songs ‘Heaven’, ‘A Hanging’, and ‘Greed’. In addition to this set, there are also three live albums available from this period, Kill the ChildReal Love, and the newly reissued Public Castration Is a Good Idea.

Swans - Children of God - World of Skin

Swans - Children of God - World of Skin

The next reissue, spanning 1986 to 1988, contains the album Children of God and the collected works of Swans’ side project, World of Skin. Children of God is my personal favorite Swans album, and it together with the excellent World of Skin material make this my favorite of all the reissues.

Children of God is the album that I feel best represents Swans’ strengths and also showcases all the different styles they would exhibit over their entire history, from the all-out dirge misery of  ‘Sex, God, Sex’ to the exquisite balladry of  ‘Blackmail’ to the electronic ambience of the title track. It’s all here, and for those who are new to Swans this is the reissue that I would recommend as the ideal starting point. As an added bonus, listening to its two discs back to back can cause a depressed state so deep it takes a good night’s sleep to shake it off. Hooray!

The next reissue covers the years 1988 to 1992. This time period is when a lot of people began to say that the Swans now ‘sucked’. In other words, they continued introducing melodic ideas into their music and, perhaps most egregiously, they (gasp!) signed with a major label, MCA.

Swans - The Burning World LP

Swans - The Burning World LP

The fruits of this collaboration, 1988’s Bill Laswell-produced  The Burning World, was an abject commercial failure, resulting in their being immediately dropped from MCA. Admittedly, the album’s more melodic and fleshed-out (read ‘commercial’) sound takes a few listens to get used to, but it more than holds its own once it’s sunk in.

The other albums released during this period, White Light from the Mouth of Infinity and Love of Life, are similar in their approach, although in all three cases there’s still plenty of dirge and despair to go around. Highlights include ‘I Remember Who You Are’, ‘No Cruel Angel’, ‘Love Will Save You’, and the cover versions of Traffic’s ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’, and Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.
On a side note, these albums are also noteworthy for revealing where Peter Steele ripped off his whole baritone-in-torment shtick from. I love Type O Negative, but it all started here.

Swans - The Great Annihilator

Swans - The Great Annihilator

The rest of the Swans catalog from this point forward is all still in print. 1994 saw the release of The Great Annihilator, an album which many of the faithful saw as a return to form, which is funny considering it’s not really all that different from the albums which preceded it. Whatever. Specious critiquing aside, this is one of their stronger albums, and it achieves a coherent whole that the reissues, by their very nature as compilations, are precluded from achieving.

This album was followed in 1995 by simultaneous solo albums by Swans frontman Michael Gira, Drainland, and singer Jarboe, Sacrificial Cake. It is perhaps a bit misleading to call these two releases solo albums, since both albums feature contributions by the other artists, as well as using a lot of the same musicians, who all just happened to be members of the Swans at the time. Both albums are also listed under the somewhat awkward moniker of ‘Swans-Related Project’. And they sure as hell sound like Swans albums. But who am I to judge?

Swans’ final studio album was 1997’s Soundtracks for the Blind. Immediately prior to this album’s release came  Die Tur Ist Zu, which featured versions of songs on Soundtracks for the Blind sung in German, as well as alternate versions of other cuts from that album.

M.Gira & Jarboe - 1994

M.Gira & Jarboe - 1994

That album, like Children of God, is a comprehensive representation of all the different styles that the Swans touched on throughout their career. While it is at times a bit spotty, as a whole the album holds up extremely well, and features what is in my opinion some of their best work, including ‘Helpless Child’, ‘All Lined Up’, ‘The Sound’, and ‘YRP’.
The album also contains some ambient tape-loop compositions, foreshadowing the style that Michael Gira would use after the band’s demise in his side project known as The Body Lovers.

The final release was the double live CD  Swans Are Dead. This features selections from their 1995 and 1997 world tours. Far from being a note-perfect rehash of the songs already on the studio albums, Swans in typical fashion used this final live release to rework and reimagine established material, as well as a forum to release new songs. The first half-hour of this album is taken up in its entirety with three new songs that were written specifically for the final tour and album.
The rest of the album features radically reworked versions of ‘I Crawled’ (featuring cookie monster vocals by Jarboe), ‘I Am the Sun’ (possibly as performed by Howlin’ Wolf), and ‘Your Property’, here listed as ‘YR PRP’. This album easily ranks with their best studio releases, and was a classy and fitting end to their career.

As for today, Jarboe releases her own solo material and she collaborated with the likes of Neurosis, Jesu and Phil Anselmo to name but a few, and in addition to the Body Lovers, Michael Gira has released a spoken word album of children’s stories called The Somniloquist, and a companion album to the Body Lovers called, appropriately enough, the Body Haters. But his main outlet now is the Angels of Light, whose two albums, New Mother and  How I Loved You are excellent continuations of where the Swans last left off.

If you want further information, you should check out their official web site. This is a comprehensive website maintained by a well informed fan, which contains thorough release information, as well as sound files, and also news updates on what new projects the band members are involved with now. More info can be found on Michael Gira’s site www.younggodrecords.com
or Jarboe’s www.thelivingjarboe.com.

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Original Pentagram member Geof’O Keefe on First Daze Here

Posted on Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

(From our archives:  Original Pentagram member Geof  ‘O Keefe  wrote an in depth studio report about First Daze Here, the 2002 compilation of rare and unreleased Pentagram songs) I initially learned of First Daze Here when Cameron Davidson called me to tell me that someone from Relapse contacted him about […]

Horror flics as recommended by Justin Oborn

Posted on Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Electric Wizard’s Jus Oborn wrote A Roadburn Film Reel about his favorite horror flics a couple of years ago: Devil’s Angels (USA 1967)  &  Psychomania (UK 1971) First up two biker movies which, I think, represent how a band like Electric Wizard should be… like a crazy fuckin’ bike gang; […]

Kyuss Retrospective

Posted on Monday, May 11th, 2009

Increasingly over the last five years, you’re likely to hear the name of Kyuss cropping up in interviews, album liner notes and even sometimes on radio shows. The reverence that Kyuss is held in is starting to approach mammoths such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix or contemporaries Nirvana. […]

The Roadburn 2009 Festival that was

Posted on Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

The 2009 Roadburn festival is now behind us and we are left with a huge pile of amazing memories and impressions to tide us over until next year. Once again, people from all over the world descended on Tilburg and the energy at this year’s roadburn seemed extra special.

Jon Blank (Wino, Rezin) 1974-2009 RIP

Posted on Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Jon Blank passed away a few days after his last show with Wino at  the Roadburn 2009 Afterburner. We at Roadburn are saddened by this loss and our thoughts go out to the friends and family he left behind. Click below for the eulogy by his sister on the MySpace […]

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