Brainwashed: Swans, "White Light from the Mouth of Infinity/Love of Life"
With both albums out of print for a number of years, Michael Gira has (somewhat surprisingly) not only saw fit to present these two in their original forms, but as a deluxe vinyl box set (or less deluxe CD), expanded with a disc of period-specific rarities and outtakes. What was originally a drastic departure from what everyone expected from Swans is now somewhat less so, and with almost an additional 25 years since White Light from the Mouth of Infinity, their place in Swans' impeccable catalog makes perfect sense. Even removed from that, however, they are an exceptionally strong pair of American folk influenced albums that have lost none of their force or impact to this day.
The second major phase of Swans' career (roughly from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s) has always been a contentious one, for artist and fan alike. Many decried the shift away from the violent, seething, belligerent sound that characterized seminal records such as Cop or Filth, into a more melodic one as an example of the now-novel concept of 'selling out." The move towards actual song writing and melody has also been blamed on Jarboe's increased presence in the band. Gira himself had spoken dismissively about these albums in interviews, and during the first reissue campaign in the late 1990s, these two albums were cherry picked and mixed with rarities from the era as the tellingly titled Various Failures.
In hindsight, the confusing birth of these records is understandable. The band's more song-oriented focus started in earnest with 1989's The Burning World, a record that has all but been disowned by the band. Which, I can understand. I personally do enjoy that record quite a bit, but it does not sound like Swans before, or after. Surely the heavy-handed influence of a major record label infringed on the creation of the album quite a bit, as did the notable (though likely well intentioned) production by Bill Laswell and his cadre of session players.
The follow up, White Light From The Mouth of Infinity, was in a way a return to form. The no wave aggression and blunt force musical approach was dispatched in favor of songwriting that focused more on melody than just mood. In addition, there was an expanded instrumental template that heavily featured acoustic guitars as well as an increased use keyboards, all with Gira singing, rather than barking and bellowing like a drunken thug. But the intensity had not waned at all. Perhaps it is clearer now in the post-My Father era that the purer approach and development as songwriters was actually instituted nearly 25 years ago.
The lyrical content and associated themes were still there as well. Those early albums and singles were seething with disgust and hatred, much of which was directed inward. A song like "Better Than You" may not be as aggressively blunt as "Cop," but it is anything but a romantic ballad. Additionally, "Failure" is as self-loathing as music can possibly can get, but presented in a country-tinged song rather than pummeling riffs, a contrast that makes it an even stronger piece. Even when the lyrics seem to drift more into conventional territory, such as on the more ballad-like "Love Will Save You" or "Miracle of Love," the arrangements and dramatic presentation come with such a force that it rivals the intensity of any of their more violent moments.
Love of Life, which was released just a year later, does not stray far from the style of its predecessor, unsurprisingly given the relatively short span of time between their creation. The bombast of "In The Eyes of Nature" and "The Golden Boy that was Swallowed by the Sea" could have appeared on White Light and fit in perfectly. "Her" may feature a similar stripped down acoustic sound akin to "Failure," though with uncharacteristically intimate lyrics and calmness that results in one of the band’s most sensitive songs of their entire career, at least before the explosive second half.
The title song and "Amnesia" stand out as two fast tempo songs of grandiose rock music, which I mean in the most complimentary of ways. Both feature rapid fire, almost martial rhythms that are like the band giving a nod back to the industrial edged sound of the Greed/Holy Money era, but with layered keyboards and guitar stabs that bring back the dissonance without having the band repeat themselves. One notable development here is the introduction of the short, untitled interludes between some of the songs, a unifying compositional strategy that would be used again to brilliant effect on Soundtracks for the Blind.
The third rarities disc (presented on CD within the vinyl box as well) is a mixed bag. Many of the b-sides and other songs had appeared previously on Various Failures, so they are nothing revelatory. That’s not to dismiss them by any means: "Picture of Maryanne," for example, is even more delicate than "Her" and is just as achingly beautiful now as ever, and "You Know Everything" is still as hard hitting as anything that made it onto the two previously discussed records. The extended mixes of both "Love of Life" and "Amnesia" are here as well, though the latter is a minute or so shorter than the original single version for some reason. While both take the songs in new and different directions than their original forms, they both heavily feature loops and repetition characteristic of extended dance mixes that dull the impact of the original, more succinct songs.
Five songs from the side project Skin's Ten Songs for Another World album show up here too, which is an odd choice given that they technically are not by Swans (just Gira and Jarboe), and they also appeared previously on Various Failures. Additionally, there is only a small bit of live material extracted from the out of print Omniscience and Anonymous Bodies in an Empty Room albums; the inclusion of more would have strengthened this as a compilation. "The Unknown" is the only song that I believe has not been available prior; an otherwise unrecorded live piece that presents this era of Swans in a rawer, less polished capacity that brings out the primal energy that underscores many of the songs of this era. I have no idea the depth of the archival recordings of this period, but it just makes me wish there were more unreleased works like this (or demo versions of songs) on the disc.
Having owned both original albums in this set, as well as Various Failures, I was most interested in the rarities disc, and unfortunately that did not break any significant new ground for me. That aside, White Light and Love of Life have been misunderstood, overlooked, and unfairly maligned in the past, so re-presenting them as the newest incarnation of Swans comes to its conclusion makes perfect sense. Looking at their entire career in a full historical context, it becomes crystal clear how these formative records, along with the beloved ones that came before them, fit in to the band’s ever-growing legacy and are no less significant or noteworthy than the most beloved albums.