The Guardian: Enduring Love: why Swans are more vital now than ever
Young God records this week reissued two classic early-90s Swans albums as a vinyl box set. White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity and Love of Life have both been remastered and come in with an extra CD of outtakes, rarities and contemporaneous live recordings, as well as two “rare posters”.
“So what?” I hear a lot of people mutter. And, to be fair, Cult Band From Yesteryear Who Split Then Reformed Gets Reissue Treatment By Music Industry Circling The Drain And Desperate For One Last Pay Cheque is hardly hold-the-front-page news. It seems that in 2015 every single underground band you dimly remember/recall reading about from the 70s, 80s and 90s (as well as plenty you’ve never even heard of) have recently reformed and had their entire back catalogues remastered and reissued on the kind of weighty, expensive 180g vinyl you could beat a woolly mammoth to death with.
And sadly in most cases, these reissue programmes only serve to confirm that the truly creative part of a once left-field band’s life is now over by means of contrast with what they are currently up to; which is often nostalgia-focussed live shows and the release of underwhelming and out of touch studio albums. Even at their best, these new albums – such as recent honourable efforts by the Pixies and My Bloody Valentine – only serve to highlight how a once innovative sound has been successfully co-opted by lesser talents while the band has been away.
But there are exceptions to every rule and if I ever need an example of why it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that a legendary band is reforming, Swans is my go-to. Because as much as I’m looking forward to going out and buying this box set on the day it’s released, nothing compares to how much I’m looking forward to hearing the band’s new studio album in spring 2016. And this is because Swansare that rarest of things: a cult band who have reformed just to produce the best work of their career, both live and on record, in their autumn years.
Swans incubated in New York’s Lower East Side No Wave scene in 1982 around the enigmatic but troubled art student and ex-con Michael Gira. The songwriter, bassist and singer led a shifting line-up of musicians that briefly included Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and would find a “near-constant” foil in guitarist Norman Westberg, who joined the group in 1983. Their sound was a cacophonous rhythmic throb which drew on post punk, industrial, doom metal, NYC avant minimalism and the blues; a sound which was matched by Gira’s often nihilistic, anti-natalist and existential lyrical concerns, which were delivered in a stentorian and messianic manner.
Live shows around this period were punishing affairs notorious for their dangerously high volumes, Gira’s sometimes violent antagonism of the crowd and unusual tactics such as locking the audience in the venue or the “show” being played in complete darkness. These experience-intensifying tactics proved to be a double-edged sword, as they eventually overshadowed the music itself (in the eyes of the press and casual music fans) and this was possibly a contributory factor in Gira calling time on the group after their 1997 tour.
One can only feel so much sympathy for him. Speaking as a journalist, it is difficult to ignore the amazing stories that have built up round the band over the years. Once, for example, an unfortunate sound guy made the mistake of asking the singer what he wanted the band to sound like. He replied: “Like this” and punched the hapless engineer in the chest.
The introduction of Jarboe into the line-up in 1986 was key to the band’s maturity and (no doubt) survival, as they developed a more musical style that drew in acoustic, post-rock and ambient elements, moving them further away from atonality and dissonance. Admittedly, the band had a disastrous flirtation with mainstream acceptance after releasing two cover versions of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart and signing to MCA. The resultant album, The Burning World (1989) is seen by many fans as their only major misstep but even this ill-judged compromise led directly to the excellent (aforementioned) White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity and Love Of Life, which showed that, at their best, Swans had replaced an initial extremity of visceral impact with one of musical complexity and sophistication of ideas. But despite this valiant fightback, it felt like Swans were a band too far out of step with the times they found themselves in and too exhausted to continue struggling while barely anyone was paying attention.
Of course, while they were away, between 1997 and 2010, the internet changed absolutely everything about the landscape that music was created, disseminated, discussed and enjoyed in. Websites such as Pitchfork and message boards such as ILM allowed a more sophisticated and nuanced narrative of Swans to emerge; one that wasn’t just predicated on violence, volume, disgust and other superlatives. But other than allowing fans of underground music to converge and mobilise away from the consent of the mainstream rock media, there were other advantages afforded by the internet, many of which Gira himself was an early adopter of.
The musician has been using his own version of the Kickstarter method to fund the recording of his albums since his group Angels Of Light’s album How I Loved You came out in 2001. He tends to release a limited run compilation CD (usually featuring live tracks, outtakes or demos) – often numbered with handmade artwork – to raise money to cover production costs. He funded the reformation of the Swans as a six piece in the same manner and released My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope To The Sky in September 2010 without having to look to a major label or large indie for support.
There was a short North American tour in autumn, 2010 and they then headlined Supersonic, an extreme music festival in Birmingham, England on 22 October. Probably, like many of the people who were in the crowd for that show, I nearly left before the band came on stage due to the near zero temperatures in the unheated warehouse but afterwards was very happy indeed that I decided to stay. Opening track No Words/No Thoughts was stretched out to near half an hour of intense, pulsating build – it was clear immediately that reformed or not, Swans were once again future-facing and had no interest in staring forlornly at former glories.
Rather than trying to decide between them, I see the trio of post-reformation albums (including 2012’s The Seer and 2014’s To Be Kind) as an indivisible set, which documents the band developing a new sound, refining it and then introducing new elements such as funk and cosmic jazz. And this was all achieved in spite of the fact that Jarboe was no longer on board, something many fans, myself included, had initial reservations about.
My semi-educated guess as to why Swans have succeeded in producing the best work of their career so far, where so many other bands of a similar vintage have either failed completely or merely whelmed, is that they staked everything on a fresh roll of the dice. They took a genuine gamble on creating new art rather than trying to recapture past glories. There is no evidence at all to support the idea that Swans are being driven by commercial factors. (In fact, commercial suicide is probably a better description if Gira’s initial idea for next year’s album is anything to go by. In an interview with me in May, 2014 he said his he wanted to expand the six piece to include “ten hammered dulcimers playing through Fender twins ... a 15-piece choir, ten horns and ... timpani and percussion”. One can only pray that this is still the plan.)
There is no clearer indication of this lack of financial interest than the fact that, having just spent five years building Swans up to be bigger than they ever were before, Gira is choosing to move on before they become little more than a successful formula and festival fixture. As he said in an update on the band’s Facebook profile in July: “This will be the final Swans album (and subsequent tour) for this version / iteration of Swans. Not really sure what the next step will be after that, but that’s perhaps a good thing…”
Swans are one of the greatest bands currently operating in the world today. May I politely suggest that you get it while it’s hot.