Who They Are: An intense experimental ensemble formed in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1982 by stalwart member and visionary Michael Gira, following the demise of his former band, Circus Mort. The group’s early music was grinding, brutal, and violent, with some truly horrific and debased lyrics adding to the transcendent discomfort of their work. In the mid-’80s, Gira’s creative and personal partner Jarboe joined the group as a second vocalist, songwriter, arranger and keyboard player, and the pair slowly moved the group toward more traditional song-based structures, though the darkness of the words and music remained potent, even in more acoustic or melodic settings with Swans and/or their side project of the era, Skin. Swans dissolved in 1997, with Jarboe and Gira embarking on satisfying solo careers, and Gira launching the influential Young God Records. While the group’s following in its initial run was fervent, if small, by 2010, their legend and influence had grown to a point where Gira’s announcement of their re-activation (without Jarboe) was warmly covered by the likes of such “respected” outlets as National Public Radio and The New York Times. Swans have issued five studio albums since their reformation to critical acclaim, and their epic live shows have come to carry legendary status as thrilling, exhausting, exhilarating exercises in creating other-worldly experiences for audiences through battering repetition, volume, and intensity. A 2019 documentary called Where Does A Body End? provides an absolutely stellar overview of their career, catalog, and creative processes, and I highly recommend it. Here’s the trailer:
When I First Heard Them: 1984-ish, around the time of their second long-player, Cop, and the game-changing Young God EP. While the value and impact of album cover art has been dramatically diminished in these our sad streaming days, I often bought records way back when based solely on imagery and close reading of liner notes on exterior covers, without having any idea of what the grooves inside the record sleeve actually contained. Swans’ cover iconography grabbed me immediately; it was stark, scary, and striking, and the presence of early song titles like “Big Strong Boss” and “Weakling” and “Butcher” and “Thug” and “I Crawled” and “Raping A Slave” gave a dark preview into what one was going to experience within those records’ tracks. The first record of theirs I actually purchased was Filth (1983), and, Holy Moly, was that dark preview sense borne out in garish, painful audio-technicolor when that and subsequent records were actually acquired and consumed. The group went into a highly prolific period over the next few years as they stabilized around what I consider to be their greatest line-up: Gira, Jarboe, guitarist Norman Westberg (the only close-to-permanent member of the band throughout its history, other than Gira), bassist Algis Kizys and drummer Ted Parsons. After their sole flirtation with a major label on 1989’s atypical, Bill Laswell-produced The Burning World, Swans went on to issue a steady series of stellar releases that balanced the beautiful and the debased throughout the remainder of their original run, with a variety of rhythm sections working around the Gira-Jarboe-Westberg core (except for a brief period when Clinton Steele served as the featured guitarist in Norman’s place). The post-2010 group has featured Gira and Westberg with a mostly-stable collection of superior collaborators and colleagues, and it’s been pleasing to see Gira earning so many well-deserved plaudits from “reputable” media outlets after decades of personal and creative struggle in the dark spaces of the musical underground. Best of all, while the structures and sounds of his songs have evolved over the years, their intensity (lyrically and musically) has not faded, and that’s an accomplishment truly worthy of respect and honor and admiration.
Why I Love Them: Just before I discovered Swans, I had written and recorded a song called “Meat,” (I’m dismayed to discover today that I do not have a digital copy of that song to share), which featured these words as its final verse:
Meat, soul. Soul, meat.
All we are is where they meet.
God can satisfy the spirit.
Hear His message? Hear it? Hear it!
Meat is happy stimulated.
Through sex and pain the meat is sated.
Without delving too deeply into the dark spaces of my personal psychology, then or now, I’ll note that explorations into extreme physical vs spiritual dynamics were deeply important to me at that time, and highly relevant to how I viewed and experienced the world around me. So it was an utter thrill to discover Swans, who took such explorations to the deepest, hardest, darkest places, where bodies and souls were punished, or pleasured, or processed in ways that combined those two states, blurring the distinctions between them. Gira’s early lyrics were often truly horrifying, and his musical settings were sublimely suited to framing them, punching their impact and their meaning into your body with sledgehammer power and dental drill precision. When Gira and Jarboe (a fellow native Southerner, which I always appreciate) began to openly blend the language and culture of my own strict and strange Christian upbringing into Swans’ music with 1987’s Children of God, it raised the impact of their work and music to fever-state levels for me, speaking to and through me in ways that few other artists ever have. And saying that, I also have to note that early Swans were possibly the one and only group that nobody in my personal circle of music nerds could stomach or tolerate, so they never played on any communal stereos anyplace that I lived through the ’80s, further cementing their status as a deeply personal obsession and inspiration for me. On a slightly lighter note, while there were few things to be tickled about during the Anno Virum, I did very much appreciate the fact that Michael Gira produced protective face masks inspired by the cover of my very first Swans album, Filth, all those years earlier. My favorite mask, without question.
While I’ve diligently followed Swans’, Gira’s and Jarboe’s careers and catalogs over the years, the profoundly personal impact of their early albums and songs means that my personal top ten list below certainly skews harder in that direction than toward their more contemporary releases. But sometimes that’s how music works, speaking to us just where we are, profoundly, in specific moments, ages, and places in our lives. It remains deeply cathartic and satisfying to occasionally pummel myself with these great Swans songs (and many others), uplifting in their debasement, righteous in their wrongness, and healing in their hurt, then, now, always.
#10. “The Great Annihilator,” from The Great Annihilator (1995)
#9. “Failure,” from White Light From the Mouth of Infinity (1991)
#8. “Time Is Money (Bastard),” from Time Is Money (Bastard) EP (1986)
#7. “A Screw (Holy Money),” from Holy Money (1986)
#6. “Stupid Child,” from Greed (1986)
#5. “Weakling,” from Filth (1983)
#4. “The Other Side of the World,” from Love of Life (1992)
#3. “Your Game,” from Body to Body, Job to Job (1991)
#2. “Thank You,” from Filth (1983)
#1. “A Hanging,” from Holy Money (1986)