Swans | Children of God / World of Skin | Review | Brandon Stosuy

love, human frailty, and the midnight beauty of black orchids

As a college radio DJ in the mid-90s, I once played "God Damn the Sun"-- the coda from 1988's The Burning World -- for over an hour on repeat. Every time the song faded, I placed the needle back in the starting groove and waited for the tentative drones to begin again. The Swans' bleak eulogizing mixed perfectly with the snow outside the station window, and I imagined passers-by who could hear were realizing we'd found the proper soundtrack to wait out the winter, literally and figuratively: "When, when we were young/ We had no history/ So nothing to lose/ Meant we could choose/ Choose what we wanted then/ Without any fear/ Or thought of revenge/ But then you grew old/ And I lost my ambition." In actuality it's a more temperate song, set to the dusty alcoholism of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano , and the snow...I was just being dramatic. But Swans-- for all their bombast-- avoided succumbing to the same high-school theatrics during their band's fifteen year existence, contrary to what you might have been told.

Formed in 1982 and fronted by vocalist and guitarist Michael Gira (currently busying himself with Angels of Light and Young God Records), Swans included a revolving cast of unrelentingly deft and like-minded downtown players, most significantly vocalist/keyboardist Jarboe, who's pitch-clear voice contrasted diabolically with Gira's deeper-than-hell bellow. Perhaps because of his fire and brimstone intonation-- which makes Ian Curtis sound like a pistol-whipped soprano-- Swans were often pigeonholed as a too-dark, almost laughable gothic experiment. The assessment is reductive and tone-deaf: at their best, Swans seamlessly layered no-wave and heavyweight industrial pounding with streams of erudite Middle-Eastern drones, drop tuning, monolithic sheets of noise, harrowing, force-fed dynamics, and gorgeously lilting strings and acoustic guitars. Add to this adventurousness Gira's dark tales of warped love, lusty damnation, torturous addiction, and soul-sickened existentialism and you've got yourself one of the more interesting musical takes on the underbelly of human nature to crop up in the last two decades.

Most of the band's work went rapidly out of print, but Gira has graciously remastered and reissued much of it on Young God. The blistering Children of God , for example, was originally released in 1987 and reissued ten years later as a double CD with World of Skin , a compilation of tracks from Skin, a Gira/Jarboe collaboration focused more on Jarboe's ethereality. World of Skin compiles Blood, Women, Roses (1987) and Shame, Humility, Revenge (1988), albums from the same time period as Children of God (1987).

Children of God , one of the band's strongest releases, established Gira as an Old Testament tyrant obsessed with the nature of love, human frailty, and the midnight beauty of black orchids. Much of Swans' earliest work on Filth and Young God found the band fixating on single beats in a brutally sweeping, industrial cacophony, in many ways the realization of the theories of the Futurists. Later, with the addition of Jarboe, Gira brought more varied sounds into the mix, melding hooks and spatial variation to the unwavering rhythms. Children of God stands as a solid example of this transition: the maniacally heavy drone of the album's opener, "New Mind" gives way to the fragility of Jarboe's "In My Garden". This is one of a dozen wonderful juxtapositions here; in its expansiveness, Children of God brings to mind disparate touchstones: Joy Division's factory-worker melancholy, more elaborately atmospheric Black Metal bands like Emperor who deal in swirling beauty and intensity, Big Black for pure aggression, and old-time softness of traditional folk.

On Children of God , Gira's brief lyrical declarations have also begun to evolve into a larger sense of storytelling (he in fact published a hypnotic collection of Gothic short tales, The Consumer , on Henry Rollins' imprint 2.13.61 in 1996). On later recordings like The Burning World (1988), the details of the prose equaled the atmosphere evoked within the music.

World of Skin is less accomplished, its quiet introspection lacks the maniacal propulsiveness of Swans. On the plus side, tracks like "Breathing Water" and "One Small Sacrifice" anticipate Gira's later work with Angels of Light, albeit in a more skeletal, funereal form. Here, though, Jarboe's vocalizing often errs on the side of the new age: her interpretation of "Cry Me a River" is static (to be fair, Gira's remake of "I Want To Be Your Dog" is equally ho-hum) and "We'll Fall Apart" sounds like the precursor to some hopelessly lightweight Sarah McLaughlin's malaise. On the other hand, "Blood on Your Hands" is a lovely dark-night spiritual harmonized by Jarboe and other singers. This track also shows up on The Swans Are Dead , a mind-blowing documentation of their final world tours of 1995 and 1997. Live, it grows into a sinister solo alto with a slight drone humming and other ambient noise in the background.

Despite the misfires on World of Skin , to experience these carefully paired documents as a singularity is an intense study in contrasts and linkages as well as a compelling look at a particularly fruitful moment in the development of one of America's more ecstatically uncompromising, idiosyncratic, and sadly overlooked composers.