Swans | Swans Are Dead | Review

SF Weekly | Dave Clifford

Swans Are Dead, the final act of attrition

Attrition—the act of wearing away a surface through repeated rubbing, or the gradual reduction of will through constant waves of repetition—is the defining characteristic of Swans. In the 15-year existence of the now-finished group, vocalist/guitarist Michael Gira and a revolving door of contributors—the most significant of these being longtime vocalist/keyboardist Jarboe—sought to isolate and exaggerate the limitations of music. Where rhythm and melody traditionally embody a song, Swans have dissected it. Where lyrical themes traditionally ignore the visceral and brutal sides of sexuality, Swans have sought to magnify them.

On early recordings like Filth and Young God, Swans hammered single or double beats of a measure and a melody into plodding tempos. The result was simplistic, brutal, and anti-melodic. But once Gira had mastered the form, he abandoned it in favor of a new sound, one in which chiming Middle Eastern drones were infused with a rhythmic impulsion. The melodicism cost the band a considerable following in the early 90s.

Swans Are Dead, the final act of attrition, contains live recordings culled from their final world tours of 1995 and 1997. Here, as clever as always, Swans' music atomizes rhythm and melody by taking repetition to an extreme, almost aberrant degree, to a point where the music is transformed into a behemoth machine that simultaneously disrupts and illuminates its own internal structure. On the album opener, "Feel Happiness," the rhythm of a standard bar is frozen, as a repeated snare crack and cymbal crash compound beneath drop-tuned droning bass, guitars, and keyboard. Similar to the way a skipping CD or record plucks a small element from a passage and disrupts its logic, the repetition of flowing cymbals and a fragmented guitar melody disrupts a normal rock song.

Many of the songs performed on these final tours were versions of older Swans material, reworked to emphasize certain melodic, lyrical, and rhythmic subtleties. "Blood Promise," the syrupy 1994 ballad, is stripped to a torturous chiming drone of guitars and flaring cymbals. "I Crawled" is reworked from its original crushing plod into a tense narrative with slowly building crescendos.

Still, it is songs like "The Sound" and "Not Alone" that jarringly demonstrate Swans' tasteful flirtation with streamlined melodies. Compounding several harmonies of instruments that swirl continuously in mantra form, the group creates a sound of constant elevation and rhythmic attrition. "The Sound" begins as a murmur of keyboards, vibraphone, and lightly thumping percussion, and a simple melody is slowly built within the repetitive modulation between two notes. The structure has fractured and musical order is, if only briefly, transcended. Which is exactly the aim of Swans' music—to give the taste of ecstatic annihilation. And here, a blissful farewell.