Swans | Review | Swans are DeadI find it remarkable how Swans have progressed over the many years of their existence... from near-atonal cacophony to trembling acoustic melody without ever compromising the severity or intensity of the effect their music induces. The earlier Swans records, although slow, loud and harrowing, with titles that pretty much say it all ('Raping a Slave', 'Butcher', 'Thug'), always hinted at some delicate sense of beauty amid the walls of guitar noise and shudder-inducing lyrics. Although more recent albums have been perversely tuneful ('The Sound Of Freedom' could almost be Swans' take on Bruce Springsteen) that edgy sense of vertigo has remained undiluted. It is this quality which makes them unique.
My first experience of the group Whitehouse (cited as an influence by Michael Gira)Ã¬ was quite extreme. I found the records disturbing to such an extent that I had doubts about wanting such vile artefacts in my house. Whitehouse, by their own testament, produced 'the most violently repulsive records ever made'. Whitehouse are all about domination - that is, beating the listener into submission. But where their untrammelled fury is directed outwards at the listener, that of Swans takes the opposite approach. Swans music doesn't name names, but rather focuses on the psychological profile of rage directed inwards; which, with the extremes to which Gira's lyrics take it, seems altogether more disturbing. Whitehouse may scream and rage about what plans they have in store for your bottom, but when Gira howls 'I'll cut off my right arm just to stand in your shadow', and sounds as though he intends to do just that, it is genuinely scary.
This double CD marks the conclusion of the group's long and tormented history, with expertly recorded selections from the last two tours. Like Mr Dinger (see elsewhere), Swans are in their element doing one simple thing over and over until one is carried away by its divine momentum. The effect works in a similar way to the principle of Chinese water torture, and on occasion to an apparently similar end. This is not to suggest Swans are just about pain. No, it's more complicated than that, like the dull and vaguely satisfying numbness of a picked-at wound, a second of clarity and calm before a violent storm, extended out towards infinity. Yet in spite of this, even at their slowest and ugliest, Swans remain sublimely glorious and panoramic. There is something very Old Testament at work here. A fitting full stop to Swans' fifteen year sentence.