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Swans' 2012 lineup. Michael Gira is in the cowboy hat.
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Swans is a rather diverse No Wave, Noise Rock, 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, leader Michael Gira has been the band's only constant member, although Jarboe, who was with the band from 1984-97, and Norman Westberg, whose tenure spans 1983-95 and 2010-present, are notable for their long tenures.

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.

For most of their existence they have been primarily an underground act (although they have finally seen a bit of mainstream success, or at least Mainstream Obscurity, with their reunion) 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, 13 studio albums, 9 live albums, 7 compilation albums, 11 EPs, and have made four music videos, but these aren't exactly well known.

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They got their start with a self-titled EP in 1982, followed by their LP debut Filth in 1983. The latter is known for its harsh noise rock and industrial influences, and very well could be considered an Ur-Example for grindcore. (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 in 1987.

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 '90s, Jarboe began to have an even bigger role in the band and softer elements, including classical instrumentation and, in later years, vibraphone.

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With the surprise hit on US college radio of "Love Will Tear Us Apart", MCA's sublabel Uni Records 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. While it featured more accessible pop melodies, many of the lyrics continued to deal with depression, death, greed and despair, but with some rays of hope added. Also, Gira began to sing on a regular basis, as opposed to chanting or shouting the lyrics; his baritone vocals bring to mind a more urbane Johnny Cash. Unfortunately, troubles with Uni/MCA 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, mixed with Progressive Rock influences, making for a rather complex record in comparison to earlier work. Imagine Leonard Cohen singing lead on In the Court of the Crimson King, and you'll start to get the idea.

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, to virtually universal acclaim. It also expanded their audience substantially. The band's third reunion album, To Be Kind, came in May 2014; like The Seer, it is a double-disc set containing around two hours of music, and like The Seer, it has been highly acclaimed. It also climbed up to number 37 on the the Billboard 200. The absence of Jarboe (although she does make guest appearances on two songs on The Seer) has altered their sound to an arguably less melodic style.

The band's fourteenth studio album, The Glowing Man, was released on June 17, 2016. Gira followed it up by announcing that the current version of the group is coming to an end, but he will continue to make music under the name Swans.

You can now vote for your favourite Swans album by heading over to the Best Album crowner.

The current lineup is as follows:

  • Michael Gira - guitar, vocals
  • Christoph Hahn – guitar
  • Chris Pravdica – bass guitar
  • Phil Puleo – drums, percussion, dulcimer
  • Norman Westberg – guitar
  • Paul Wallfisch - keyboard

In 2018, music writer Nick Soulsby published Swans: Sacrifice And Transcendence: The Oral History, which tells the band's story through extensive interviews with Gira, current and former members, and almost everyone who's ever been associated with the group.


The band exemplifies the following tropes:

  • Album Title Drop: The Burning World in "Mona Lisa, Mother Earth"
    "We'll walk a burning world where the sun shines darkness"
  • The Alcoholic: Michael Gira is one (currently in recovery), and wrote "Blind" and "Alcohol the Seed" about it.
  • And Now For Something Completely Different: Repeatedly on Soundtracks for the Blind, most notably with "Volcano", an EDM track about stalking and cannibalism, and "Yum Yab Killers", a live Hardcore Punk track.
  • Anti-Love Song: "Blackmail" is a particularly subtle and creepy example.
  • The Anti-Nihilist: While often considered rather bleak and hopeless, Gira has actually refuted the notion that they're only about depression and humankind's failings, with many songs that have some measure of hope despite the majority of their lyrics going into considerable detail about how uncaring and obsessive the world ultimately is.
  • Arc Words: "Sun", "skin / flesh", and "love" frequently pop up as song titles or comparing people's desires to these things.
    • "Child" and variations of it shows up a lot during the band's early days, with songs such as "Helpless Child", "Stupid Child", "My Buried Child", and that's to name a few.
  • Awesome Mc Coolname: Thor Harris. Almost counts as a Meaningful Name, as he's a burly red-haired dude whose role as a percussionist often has him hitting things with hammers.
  • Big Applesauce: They hail from NYC and still look to it as a big part of their identity.
  • Body Motifs: Skin and flesh are mentioned a lot throughout their lyrics.
  • Boléro Effect: They frequently make use of crescendos, especially in their later work. They're probably at least partially responsible for the prevalance of this in Post-Rock.
  • Careful with That Axe: On occasion.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Michael Gira often comes across as one.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: The last half of "She Loves Us!" from To Be Kind.
    • "The Apostate" is another good example.
  • Cool Old Guy: Pretty much the whole band as of 2012. In particular, Gira is in his mid-60s and not only remains creatively vital, but is enjoying the best sales of his career.
  • 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."
  • Creepy Children Singing: Michael Gira's daughter Saoirse sings backing vocals on "You Fucking People Make Me Sick".
  • Creepy Circus Music: "I Love You This Much" samples what sounds like carnival music and distorts it in such a way that, when paired with the wailing vocals fading in and out of the background, it sounds like it's coming from the mouth of hell itself.
  • Creepy Monotone: Whenever Gira does spoken word, it's usually like this.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The narrator of "God Damn the Sun" seems to have reached it.
  • Drone of Dread: Lots of it on later albums, especially Soundtracks for the Blind and The Seer.
  • 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. Their 2014 tour has featured the song "Frankie M," which goes on for nearly an hour each performance. The same goes for "The Knot", which was debuted live on their 2016 tour. On both of these tours, the audience was lucky if seven songs appeared over the course of two-and-a-half hours.
    • Songs in their recorded discography that exhibit this trope include: note 
      • Public Castration is a Good Idea: "Money is Flesh" (12:07), "A Hanging" (12:32), and "Another You" (10:16).
      • Die Tür ist zu: "Ligeti's Breath / Hilflos Kind" (22:17).
      • Soundtracks for the Blind: "Helpless Child" (15:48), "Animus" (10:42), "The Sound" (13:12), and "The Final Sacrifice" (10:28).
      • Swans Are Dead: "Feel Happiness" (16:57), "Not Alone" (13:12), "I Crawled" (10:05), "Blood Promise" (15:23), "The Sound" (12:52), and "Helpless Child" (17:52).
      • The Seer: "The Seer" (32:14), "A Piece of the Sky" (19:10), and "The Apostate" (23:01).
      • To Be Kind: "Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett)" (12:40), "Bring the Sun / Toussaint L'Ouverture" (34:05), "She Loves Us!" (17:01), "Kirsten Supine" (10:33), and "Nathalie Neal" (10:15). There is only one song on the album under seven minutes long, and only two under eight (well, okay, "Oxygen" is 7:59).
      • The Glowing Man: "Cloud of Forgetting" (12:43), "Cloud of Unknowing" (25:12), "The World Looks Red / The World Looks Black" (14:27), "Frankie M." (20:58), "The Glowing Man" (28:50). The album approaches two hours in length despite containing only eight tracks. Even Michael Gira lampshaded the length of the album in an interview, when he said it was "the musical equivalent of Ben-Hur, or Akira Kurosawa's Ran."
  • Epic Instrumental Opener: "A Piece of the Sky", "Apostate" and "Frankie M" all have over 10 minutes of music before any actual singing.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Michael Gira's vocals often sound very deep and sinister. "The Seer Returns" is a good showcase of this.
  • 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.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: Used frequently on their later work, particularly prevalent throughout The Seer.
  • Genre Roulette: They go all over the place in terms of genre with each album. Post-punk, industrial, post-rock, no wave, neofolk, post-hardcore, and other, less classifiable stuff... Yep, they're not exactly a band that feels like staying in one place for long musically.
    • Soundtracks for the Blind can basically be described as this band's The White Album. It's two and a half hours long, has over two dozen tracks, and covers genres ranging from industrial, dark ambient, and post-rock to folk, hardcore punk, and even dance music. It also contains lots of both Epic Rocking and Miniscule Rocking and frequent Mood Whiplash as well.
  • A God Am I: "I Am The Sun", which is also a Villain Song.
  • Hair-Raising Hare: On the cover of White Light From the Mouth of Infinity. It seems to be an Alice Allusion as well.
  • Horrible History Metal: "Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'ouverture" is a really bizarre example. It's named after the man responsible for the Haitian Revolution, and the lyrics consist entirely of Michael Gira screaming revolutionary slogans in French, accompanied by various sound effects like panicked horses galloping.
  • I Am the Band: Gira, to an extent.
  • Iconic Item: Gira's cowboy hat.
  • I Love the Dead: "Not Alone" is a somewhat ambiguous if intensely disturbing example, also "Killing for Company", which is based on a real life Serial Killer.
  • 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.
    • The second half of "The Seer" has a slurry of random gibberish that the official lyrics sheet lists simply as "indecipherable swearing", though it sometimes sounds like Gira is saying "I love you too much".
    • "Bring the Sun" primarily uses indecipherable mumbling for the first few minutes and then repeated bombastic Title Drops for the rest of the song.
  • Intentionally Awkward Title: They like this trope a lot. Public Castration is a Good Idea, "Raping a Slave", "Kill the Child", "You Fucking People Make Me Sick"...
  • Intercourse with You: "Sealed in Skin" plays this trope for as much discomfort as humanly possible.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: "Red Velvet Wound" is one about a miscarriage.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Gira has a reputation for being one of these, as his perfectionism and total dedication to his art have often led to strained relations with the people around him. However, there's an equal amount of stories of his being kind and polite, and he seems to be calming down somewhat as he ages.
  • Lighter and Softer: The Burning World, musically if not lyrically.
  • List Song: "Some Things We Do".
  • Long Title: My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky.
  • Loony Fan: "Volcano" seems to be about someone obsessed with a female rock star to the point of wanting to literally cannibalize her.
  • 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 movie director envious.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Practically a trademark style in their later years.
  • Madness Mantra: Many of their lyrics can qualify, but "The Seer" has a particularly good one.
    "I see it all I see it all I see it all I see it all I see it all I see it all I see it all..."
    • "Apostate" has numerous repetitions of the phrases "It's not in my mind/get out of my mind" and "On a ladder to God."
    • "Alcohol the Seed" ends with Gira moaning "I need alcohol" over and over.
    • "The Glowing Man" gives us "Joseph is making my body fly" and "I am a glowing man I am".
  • Metal Scream: Some of their earlier work had this, such as the song "Young God." It still shows up sometimes in their more recent work; "Bring the Sun / Toussaint L'Ouverture" and "Nathalie Neal" from To Be Kind both contain some examples near the end.
  • Mind Screw: Most of their music, especially on Soundtracks for the Blind.
  • Minimalistic Cover Art: Swans often goes for this, especially with the trilogy of The Seer, To Be Kind, and The Glowing Man, each of which features a single image against a blank background (Specifically, a weird creature resembling a fox on The Seer, a crying baby on To Be Kind, and a weird symbol resembling an arm on The Glowing Man).
  • 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.
  • Nightmare Face: The cover of The Seer, which features a grinning, beady-eyed fox/wolf thing surrounded by darkness.
  • No Ending: "Big Strong Boss". And apparently no beginning.
    • "Raping A Slave" from the Young God EP also abruptly ends.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Very frequently, especially on their more ambient work.
  • Post-No Wave Baroque Industrial Art Pop
  • Obsession Song: A pretty big chunk of their discography could count. "Volcano" is especially disturbing in this respect.
  • Ominous Music Box Tune: "Red Velvet Wound" samples what sounds like one and pairs it with Jarboe's sing song vocals describing a miscarriage.
  • Rape as Drama: "When Will I Return?" is based on the actual sexual assault of Michael Gira's wife Jennifer Gira. He wrote the song to help her work through the trauma of the experience, and it's sung almost entirely by her with some backing from Michael.
  • Rearrange the Song:
    • "The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black" is a heavily reworked version of the Sonic Youth song "The World Looks Red", which Gira wrote the lyrics to. Quite literally only the lyrics are the same between the two tracks.
    • Swans Are Dead contains radical live reworkings of "Blood Promise" and "All Lined Up". "Blood Promise" is greatly expanded from a 4 minute ballad into a 15 minute post-rock crescendo, while "All Lined Up" is turned into a heavy noise rock track.
  • Revolving Door Band: Their early days had a near-constant flow of departures and inductions. Things have calmed down since then.
  • Sampling:
    • Many songs on Soundtracks for the Blind sample various field recordings, mainly recorded interviews with people from the case files of Jarboe's father, an FBI agent. Some of the more notable ones:
      • "I Was a Prisoner in Your Skull" contains a voicemail from a seemingly unhinged man describing ways in which the listener is "fucked up".
      • "The Beautiful Days" samples a phone sex operator talking about her job. Another sample from this same interview shows up in "Minus Something", in which the interviewee describes feeling emotionally drained by their life.
      • "How They Suffer" samples interviews with an old man and an old woman. The man talks about slowly going blind as a result of his glaucoma, while the woman describes various symptoms of what seems to be the aftermath of a heart attack.
      • "Her Mouth is Filled With Honey" contains a sample of Jarboe's father talking about finding his teenage daughter listening to music in the dark with incense burning, apparently having some sort of drug trip.
    • Love of Life also uses this occasionally. "(-) Pt. 3" samples an old man talking about hunting deer, while "Her" contains an interview with a young Jarboe talking about starting a band with some of her friends.
  • Sanity Slippage Song: At least half the songs in their pre-Jarboe catalogue, as well as "The Apostate."
  • Scare Chord: A favorite trick of this band.
    • The first minute and a half of "The Seer" is a barrage of horns and bagpipes that starts full blast immediately after "The Wolf", an extremely quiet song consisting of sparse acoustic guitar and Gira's ominous singing.
    • "You Fucking People Make Me Sick" is mostly a creepy acoustic ballad about a Serial Killer, but immediately after the line "Now bring me what is mine" is sung, the song is cut off by a crash of piano keys, pounding drums, and blaring horns.
    • "I Love You This Much" contains a sharp electronic shrieking noise that cuts in and out of the song unpredictably.
  • Scatting: Gira does this a lot on more recent material, and it's apparently how he conceives a lot of the band's lyrics (see Word Salad Lyrics below for details). On some songs, such as "Bring the Sun" and "The Seer", the vocals are entirely just Madness Mantra alongside this trope.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out: The Chester Burnett to whom "Just a Little Boy" is dedicated to is better known as blues performer Howlin' Wolf, who is a major influence on recent Swans albums.
  • Silly Love Songs: Few and far between, though when they do appear, the results are pretty impressive.
  • Single Stanza Song: These make up a large chunk of their early work.
  • Song Style Shift: Frequently with their longest tracks. "A Piece of the Sky" goes from ominous drone, to grim post-rock, to wistful country folk over the span of 19 minutes.
  • Soprano and Gravel: Jarboe can do this by herself, which is best seen on "I Crawled", where she goes from spoken word, to One-Woman Wail, to Metal Scream.
  • 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.
    • Perishing Indie Voice: Also averted.
    • Played Straight, on "The Most Unfortunate Lie" and "The Seer Returns", as well as several songs on Soundtracks for the Blind which contain samples of spoken word.
  • Stalker with a Crush: "Volcano" and "Not Alone."
  • Studio Chatter: "Jim" starts with someone saying "I'm ready when you guys is" and then Gira responding with "Roll it, Jason".
  • Surprisingly Gentle Song: "In My Garden" and "Song for a Warrior" come to mind. And then there's The Burning World, a surprisingly gentle album. "Blind" is another example, but the beautiful instrumentation is accompanied by some of Gira's most depressing lyrics.
  • Surreal Horror: The musical equivalent, especially on Soundtracks for the Blind.
  • Survival Mantra: "I'm alive" is sung repeatedly in "When Will I Return", seemingly to invoke this.
  • Take That!: "All Lined Up" is a particularly vicious one, as is (The World of) Skin's "You'll Never Forget". "You Fucking People Make Me Sick," despite its title, is more subtle.
  • Talkative Loon: The guy sampled on "I Was a Prisoner In Your Skull".
  • Textless Album Cover: All of their post-reformation albums.
  • 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.
    • "All Lined Up" is a particularly brutal example. "The Seer Returns" and "The Glowing Man" also seem to be examples.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Many of their songs feature this in some form or another. Michael Gira has stated that he usually comes up with the tune of a song first and shapes the words to fit it, usually scatting along with the song and dropping words in where they seem appropriate while working it out. This typically results in very strange, disjointed lyrics, especially on the recent albums.
    • "No Words / No Thoughts" is a borderline example, being based on free association, though certain lines seem to characterise it as a Villain Song of sorts.
    • "Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture" mostly just has Gira screaming "BRING THE SUN" in the first half of the son, alongside vague scatting that kind of sounds like "Bring the sun", and in the second half he just screams out various revolutionary slogans in French over evocative sound effects.
  • Yarling: Michael Gira's vocal style has slight shades of this. It's far more noticeable on the post-reformation albums.

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