Swans' 2012 lineup. Michael Gira is in the cowboy hat.Swans
is a rather diverse
No Wave, Post Punk
, and lately Post Rock
band from New York City
. The band was initially formed in 1982 and ran until 1997 with various lineups, and was reformed in 2010. Throughout its history, Michael Gira has been one of two constant members; the other being Jarboe, who was with the band from 1984-97.
The only uniform traits that you could get from their music, if you will, is that the song structures often focus on repetition, instrumentally and/or lyrically, but that they still manage to not get tiresome because of the chaotic nature of their work. This is especially apparent on their earliest work.
They are primarily an underground act, and the one song that the public (might) know best would be their cover of Joy Division
's signature song Love Will Tear Us Apart
. They've also released two other singles, 11 studio albums, 9 live albums, 7 compilation albums, 11 EPs, and have made four music videos, but these aren't exactly well known.
They got their start with the EP of the same name in 1982, followed by their LP debut Filth
in 1983. The latter is known for its harsh noise-rock
influences, and very well could be considered a Ur Example
. (For the record, Mick Harris, a drummer for Napalm Death
, was describing the sound of Swans to a friend in 1984 and used the term "grind"; therefore, Swans could also be credited for inspiring the term "grindcore".)
Once Jarboe joined the band, Swans slowly moved away from the brutal aggression of Filth
and the 1984 releases of Cop
and Young God
, opting for slightly softer (but just as insane) music, beginning subtly with the 1985 Time Is Money
12", continuing with the "money" albums (Greed
and Holy Money
, 1986) and culminating with Children of God
Following Children of God
, Gira stated that he was tired of Swans being affiliated with the brutal noise of the first four LPs and also felt that the audience had expectations that he probably wouldn't fulfill. Going on into the 90's, Jarboe began to have an even bigger role in the band and softer elements, including classical instrumentation and, in later years, vibraphone.
With the surprise hit on US college radio of Love Will Tear Us Apart
, Universal/MCA offered Swans a record deal. Gira described it as this:
"I've worked so hard all my life. At 15, I was digging ditches in the deserts of Israel, and I put myself through college painting houses. I never saw any money from any of our records. So by the time I finally got that carrot dangled in front of me, it was like, at last I can make a living at what I love to do."
They took the offer and released The Burning World
in 1989. It featured more melodic pop melodies, but the lyrics, just as with anything before it, were often dealing with depression, death, greed and despair, but were sung, as opposed to chanted or shouted. Troubles with Uni/MCA, though, led to the band leaving the label and starting their own company, Young God Records. Their first Young God release was 1991's White Light from the Mouth of Infinity
, which combined the earlier hard rock influences and the later pop melodies, making for a rather complex record in comparison to earlier work.
Later on down the line came Love of Life
, the EP/single Love of Life/Amnesia
, and 1995's The Great Annihilator
, possibly their most accessible album. Eventually, though, Gira decided to break up the band, citing exhaustion, audience misconceptions, and a desire to start over and work on a smaller scale. They released an epic double-album (one of the most highly regarded albums of their career) Soundtracks for the Blind
and went on a world tour, which were showcased on the live album Swans Are Dead
as a testament to their last years together. Jarboe moved on to a successful solo career, while Gira started a more folk influenced band Angels Of Light.
In January 2010, their MySpace
page was changed to display "SWANS ARE NOT DEAD", and Gira released a solo album on Young God, entitled I Am Not Insane
, to raise money to record the new Swans album. In September of 2010, this was realized with the release of My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To the Sky
. Another reunion album, The Seer
, followed in August 2012. The absence of Jarboe has altered their sound to a less melodic style.
The current lineup is as follows:
- Michael Gira - guitar, vocals
- Christoph Hahn – guitar
- Thor Harris – drums, percussion, vibes, dulcimer, keyboards
- Chris Pravdica – bass guitar
- Phil Puleo – drums, percussion, dulcimer
- Norman Westberg – guitar
The band exemplifies the following tropes:
- Anti-Love Song: "Blackmail" is a particularly subtle and creepy example.
- Big Applesauce: They hail from NYC and still look to it as a big part of their identity.
- Big Name Fan: Gira counts as a Big Name Fan of Lisa Germano, since he signed her to his Young God Records label because he enjoyed her music.
- To a lesser extent, Kurt Cobain's name-dropping of the "Raping A Slave" EP as one of his favourite records definitely added to the band's cult caché.
- Black Sheep Hit: "Love Will Tear Us Apart", and, for the most part, the majority of their '90s work.
- Careful With That Axe: On occasion.
- Cover Version: A handful, notably Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home".
- Gira and Jarboe's side project (The World of) Skin did a few more, such as Julie London's "Cry Me a River" and an acoustic version of The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog".
- Epic Rocking: Taken to the extreme on their 2012 tours. "The Seer", in particular, seems to expand exponentially with each new incarnation; the latest version, which forms a medley with two other songs, stretches to a remarkable hour and a half.
- Extreme Doormat: Uncomfortably deconstructed and even zigzagged in their early songs. Special credit to "You Need Me", which manages this in less than two minutes and five lines.
- Genre Roulette
- I Am the Band: Gira, to an extent.
- I Love the Dead: "Not Alone" is a somewhat ambiguous if intensely disturbing example, also "Killing For Company".
- Indecipherable Lyrics: "Young God" is primarily slurred with some yelling. You can't make out more than ten words, even with the lyrics in front of your face... though comprehension is ultimately irrelevant, given the nature of said lyrics.
- Intercourse with You: "Sealed In Skin" plays this trope for as much discomfort as humanly possible.
- Lighter and Softer: The Burning World.
- Love Makes You Crazy: The level of mental instability exhibited in the majority of Swans' relationship songs, particularly early in their career, would make many a slasher film director envious.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Practically a trademark style in their later years.
- Metal Scream: Some of their earlier work had this, such as the song "Young God".
- Mind Screw
- Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: They bounce all around the scale; their acoustic stuff (such as "Love Will Tear Us Apart" or "Failure") probably counts as a 1 or 2, whereas most of Cop comes in at a hard 9 or higher, and live material from the same era (featured on Public Castration Is a Good Idea amongst other recordings) often hits 10 or even 11. And then there's stuff like Love of Life in between at about 4, and other stuff like Soundtracks for the Blind or "Look At Me Go" that just sits outside of the scale entirely.
- Mohs Scale Of Lyrical Hardness: In spite of the above, this one more or less stays at a fixed 7+.
- Murder Ballad: Many of Jarboe's songs.
- Post-No Wave Baroque Industrial Art Pop
- Old Shame: Most of their late 80's - early 90's output, but especially The Burning World.
- When Young God Records began reissuing Swans' discography, Gira compiled what he felt were the best tracks from The Burning World, White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity, Love Of Life, the Skin album Ten Songs From Another World, and other singles and b-sides into a two-disk set titled ''Various Failures''. While most or at least half of those albums were represented, only a few tracks from The Burning World were used.
- Sanity Slippage Song: "The Apostate".
- Serial Killer: "Young God" and "Killing for Company" are about (and from the perspectives of) Ed Gein and Dennis Nilssen respectively.
- According to Gira, "You Fucking People Make Me Sick" is sung from the point of view of a sexually obsessive murderer preying on attractive scene kids.
- Silly Love Songs: Few and far between, though when they do appear, the results are pretty impressive.
- Spoken Word In Music: Strangely averted, as Gira's singing voice is so deep that on some songs you'd think that he's just monologuing the whole thing.
- Stalker with a Crush: "Volcano" and "Not Alone".
- Surreal Horror: The musical equivalent, especially on Soundtracks for the Blind.
- Take That: "All Lined Up" is a particularly vicious one. "You Fucking People Make Me Sick", despite its title, is more subtle.
- Through the Eyes of Madness: Frequently.
- Title Drop: Holy Money has "A Screw", which (in both versions on the album) contains the repeating line "Holy money, holy love..."
- Villain Song: Several. "Thug" is an unusual second-person variation.
- Word Salad Lyrics: "No Words/No Thoughts" is a borderline example, being based on free association, though certain line seem to characterise it as a Villain Song of sorts.
- Write What You Know: If stuff like "Failure" is to be believed, Gira has had a seriously screwed up life.
- Proven by numerous interviews. "Blind" and "Alcohol the Seed", in particular, gain a great deal of emotional resonance in context.