Swans Are Dead | Review | Nick Mirov

Rating: 7.7

Listening to Swans is like looking into the face of eternity and being scared shitless by it. Whether or not that qualifies as a religious experience is for you to decide. For almost fifteen years, Swans mastermind Michael Gira has made the most unabashedly dramatic, harrowing music to come out of the '80s New York art-punk scene, or anywhere else, for that matter. The closest mainstream comparisons would be to Skinny Puppy's grotesque Grand Guignol theatrics or Ministry's insane thunderous noise, but neither band can match Swans' visceral humanity and orchestral, epic scope.

For the past few years, Gira had felt that too many preconceptions had been built up around the Swans moniker, so in the interest of maintaining his artistic integrity, he has chosen to break up Swans and continue to record under different names. Swans Are Dead is their aptly named final release; a double live CD culling live recordings from their 1995 and 1997 tours. Sound pretentious? Well, it's impossible to carry off such weighty, bombastic music without sounding at least a little pretentious. However, Swans Are Dead can be an incredibly compelling listen if you have the patience to overlook the music's more self- indulgent aspects.

The Swans' relentless attack of steamroller percussion, clanging guitar drones, atmospheric keyboards, and the interplay of Gira's deep vocals with that of his counterpart chantuese Jarboe make for a slow- motion sonic catharsis, repeated over and over in every song. As a first- time listener, I was impressed that they could keep me on the edge of my seat for a several minutes with a single guitar chord. The brutal repetition in Swans' music is mirrored by a repetition of lyric themes-- pain and pleasure, death and life, love and hate-- which seem simple enough, but Gira recognizes them as deeply integral parts of human existence that cannot be fully comprehended. That certainly doesn't stop him from trying, though, and it naturally makes for some quite overwrought lyrics that nevertheless fit in well with the intense nature of the music.

With such basic structures defining their sound, Swans still manage to display an amazing breadth of styles: the frenzied waves of pummelling of "Low Life Form," the moody, smoky, Nick Cave-like atmospherics of "Final Sac," the painful stabs and washes of noise on "Not Alone" and "I See Them All Lined Up," and a surprisingly soulful a cappella performance by Jarboe on "Blood On Yr Hands." Normally, studio- recorded material is a better starting point for newcomers, and it's obvious that Swans Are Dead is a final memento for longtime fans; on its own, I found Swans Are Dead to be an unsettling, frightening, yet ultimately satisfying introduction to the Swans back catalog.

Few bands in existence are as uncompromising and would dare traverse such psychic territories as Swans. Suffice it to say that Swans Are Dead, as well as anything Swans have released, is heavy, heavy shit, both in the sonic sense and its emotional impact.