•••SIGNED BY M.GIRA•••
This double CD album has everything in there – all the ideas from Swans’ 15 years of work. There’s some contemporary recordings of the band as it existed in ‘96/7, with Larry Mullins on drums/percussion, Jarboe singing and playing keyboards, Vudi playing electric guitar, and Joe Goldring playing bass and electric guitar, and me singing and playing electric and acoustic guitar, but there’s also a huge amount of sounds and recordings that I (and a few by Jarboe here too) collected over the years. These are reassembled, looped, mangled, and in many cases overdubbed upon to create new pieces of music. Being the “artist” in this case, it’s hard for me to talk about this one, because the memory is so laden (or burdened!) with the experience of making this thing. I guess what I’m trying to say here is I almost had a heart attack making it (slightly kidding here). It was just overwhelming. I really set my own trap, dug my own grave on this one. There was SO MUCH material to deal with, to sift through (whole trunks full of decomposing, moldy cassettes and discs with samples and sounds), and the task of making it into something coherent was at times debilitating. Really like climbing up a mountain of sand. I don’t remember why I set this goal for myself, to somehow incorporate such a ridiculously disparate amount of material. I think maybe it was so I could justify throwing all that crap into the local dump, which is what I did when I finished the album. But in the end, after centuries of picking at this huge iceberg of material with a toothpick, my trusty engineer Chris Griffin and I managed to sculpt something out of it. It actually breathes, seems to live, in most places I think. There’s a press release below written by Kurt at Atavistic (Swans label at the time), and some reviews too, which might give you a better idea of how this sounds. Anyway, in the end, I was elated with this music, both because I liked it and because finishing it meant I could finally lay Swans to rest after 15 years. In my case, I’m always happiest when I’m leaving. – Michael Gira/Young God Records 2008
Press release from 1997 by Kurt at Atavistic:
Soundtracks for the blind is the final studio album from the legendary band. Throughout their fifteen-year history, Swans have unfailingly presented intense, utterly singular & peerless music. Soundtracks for the blind, their new double-cd set, is the final studio album.
Soundtracks was compiled from a complex variety of sources, among them cassette loops, found sounds, narratives & multi-track recordings of new songs & interludes featuring many of the same talented musicians who joined M. Gira & Jarboe on last year's highly successful great annihilator world tour: Larry Mullins (drums, iggy pop band) & Vudi (gtr, american music club) and Joe Goldring on bass and guitar. These myriad textures, sounds & musical passages were then collaged, merged & interwoven by gira, and true to form, the fidelity & aural effect on the listener is just astounding.
Soundtracks for the blind totally delivers, in full circle fashion, the promise nascent in '94's great annihilator album. The collision of art, sound & technology has seldom sounded more complete or seductive... Soundtracks for the Blind yields total sonic immersion: your only option is to succumb.
12/1/1996 | The Wire | Biba Kopf
Swans | Soundtracks for the Blind | Review
Swans always wrote every song like it was going to be their last
The Swans always wrote every song like it was going to be their last. Even so, the announcement that this is finally it, after some 15 years of honing word, gristle, rhythm and half-melody into some of the finest, most enduring, if (unsurprisingly) somewhat unfairly overlooked works in the whole rock cannon, comes as a shock.
That they've decided to submit to cold economic reality and call it a day rather than face another soul-destroying struggle with media indifference and a diminishing fan base is sensible enough. But what is truly sad about the whole Swans saga coming to an end now is the fact that the music they've been making these past three years is every bit as powerful as the extraordinary, torturously slow, delayed-drop gallows rock with which they announced themselves at the start of the 80's.
These last Swansongs, spread over two CDs (which, appropriately enough, last a lifetime) cap and conclude all the major Swans concerns. At the same time, the instrumental fragments and interludes that punctuate the fully developed pieces hint at all the Swansongs that now will never be, just as they provide tantalizing glimpses of the future directions that Swans motivating force Michael Gira, and longtime partner Jarboe, might take.
The musical scope of Soundtracks is as breathtaking as it is thematically devastating. Along with its immediate predecessor, Die Tür Ist Zu, it constitutes the cement that binds all their preceding music into a single, formidable body of work. The subject of this body of work is the human body itself, and the daily toll taken on both body and soul by pointless, spiritually unsatisfying work. The tape collage "How They Suffer" underlines the physical frailty that permeates the set. It features two tape extracts, one of Jarboe talking to her mother, who is facing the onset of old age; the other is Gira's father talking about the detached retina that has left him blind. The piece is as moving as it is characteristically bleak, in that it offers no solace other than the sense of calm acceptance in the two voices. This admission of more directly autobiographical material is rare for a group which always spoke in the first person to articulate universal, and universally ugly, truths. Perhaps the sense of mortality the piece invokes accelerated The Swans' decision to call it a day.
Where the younger, earlier Swans would subject the body to a vicious pummeling, simulating the cruelty of the exchange values that at base govern our lives, the latter day Swans will pile into a singular riff with the musical intention of providing a release. Monotonal guitar pieces like "The Sound" and "Helpless Child" combine the controlled frenzies of Glenn Branca's guitar orchestras with the emotional intensifications of Austrian blood-artist Herman Nitsch. Where before there seemed no end to The Swans' riffing, now the piling up of overtones finally bursts into the light that illuminates the earlier darkness. But the songs are scarcely less grim. "All Lined Up" is even more devastating in its updated version than it was in its original take on Gira's solo album Drainland. What was once a flesh parade is now a march of the dead—ghost shapes iridescent in the winter light and the narrative intoned in Gira's most weatherbeaten baritone. Time and again, Gira and Jarboe pick at the scabs of their past to see if they can still bleed. Empathy straddles the Greed/Holy Money and Children Of God eras with the narrator cursing a lapse into kindness as a betrayal of weakness, while the last song "The Final Sac", reprises the notion of love, divine or otherwise, as a form of dominance and submission.
Right up to their dying moments The Swans have stayed true to their witheringly bleak vision. It has absolutely no comparison in rock. Indeed, if Gira's obsessive way of putting a small, yet complete vocabulary through endless permutations of the same, seemingly self-loathing theme can be compared to anything it should be to the novels of the late, great Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Meanwhile, another Austrian, the satirist Karl Kraus, summed up why he and their like keep gnawing at the same corpse: "Because," he said, "I persist in believing there's life in it yet."
11/27/1996 | Detroit Metro Times | Thom Jurek
Swans | Soundtracks for the Blind | Review
* * * * * stars
With the issue of Soundtracks For The Blind, their 15th album in as many years (along 12"s and side projects), Swans are calling it quits. There's one final tour planned and then the band enters the palace of rock and roll memory.
For me, this is difficult, because on a pop scene filled with transience and trend, Swans have always been present if not always visible, ever looking forward. They are, in both ambition and excess, a true voice of resistance to an "alternative" music that consumed its own corrupted flesh in the mid-1980s.
I won't spend time talking about the legion of bands they influenced—most of whom have gained in stature and economic status as a result of Swans' renegade aesthetic and unbreakable spirit—it leaves too bitter a taste in my mouth. And though I know both Gira and Jarboe are far too driven to give up working—there are books, films and duo and solo recordings planned—I will miss the persona that was so singularly Swans.
As a title, "Soundtracks for the Blind" is filled with irony. Never have Swans been so focused on their particular strengths as they are on this double CD. As a final statement, it shows that Swans are exiting at the very top of their game, not as a broken, empty shell that merely references the finer moments of yesteryear.
Visually, this set is a work of art. A cardboard digipak with two sparely designed discs of copper and silver and a gorgeous lyric sheet inserted in an inside pocket with a silkscreen of a human boneyard on the flipside. The design has everything to do with the music; it's ambiguous, austere, imposing; it stands out and invites you in, via a complex, devastating seduction.
Musically, "Soundtracks For The Blind" consists of sounds compiled from many sources: found, appropriated, played, looped and multi-tracked from live shows to hand-held cassette recordings to studio constructions. Gira and Jarboe recruited collaborators such as former American Music Club guitarist Vudi, Iggy Pop drummer Larry Mullins, Joe Goldring and Kris Force, and edited in contributions from Norman Westberg, Clinton Steele and Larry Lame (these last four, former Swans members). All the music was taken apart, collaged, spindled, manipulated, remixed and remodeled by Gira and engineer Chris Griffin.
More often than not, guitars bleed into keyboards and unidentifiable sounds, samples melt into drum loops, voices slip in and out of a thick, warm, sleepy mix and words become narrations by which the music changes direction, disappears and re-emerges transformed. Where single acoustic guitars appear, stringed instruments and unidentifiable sounds displace them and relegate them to the periphery, opening up a space for the singer to shift meanings even further afield.
Almost all individual traces (except for vocals) are obscured, not to render them beyond recognition necessarily, but in order to create an original (who can say that in pop anymore?), hypnotic, genreless whole, that breeds and reflects sadness, loneliness, isolation, alienation, resignation, tragedy and an eros born of out need, not want.
The twin notions of ambiguity and blur serve Swans well; they create the emotional axis on which "Soundtracks For The Blind" turns. Where one tracks begins, another ends, both thematically and contextually. The segues fold one emotion and the trace of its passage into another; that is then grafted as a new shadow onto the next theme. It's obvious that "Soundtracks For The Blind" was conceived as a continuous whole.
In years past, Swans were deservedly known for their aggression and brutality. These schema have been replaced by an ominous softness, an almost a malevolent tenderness expressed in whispers and washes. No longer do rage and domination battle with repulsion and submission for dominance in their sound—though the threat is ever-present. Individually, these territories have been eclipsed by a new, wider space, in which they are all contained: abjection.
It is from the Mark of Cain that Gira and Jarboe speak, it is in this ravaged, hallowed ground from which a new sonic cartography has been hewn, and a new grammar of the iniquitous been birthed. Here Neitszche, Baudelaire and Mary Magdalene walk with Bataille, Genet and Joan of Arc.
On "Red Velvet Corridor," the opening track, a slowly evolving theme of three notes breathes in the mix before what sounds like strings and a vocal drone placidly enter the fray. A lone feedback well comes from the ether and paints it momentarily.
The theme never stops, it is simple, melodic, beautiful; but even here, its sweetness colors a feeling of something sorrowful. It's elegiac, it moves the listener to the very aesthetic space Swans' discourse come from. And as it fades, one is not quite prepared for the instrumental that follows, "I Was A Prisoner In Your Skull."
A small, minimal phrase slips out into the fore only to be overshadowed by groaning voices, pounding drums and strange, disorienting spoken words. The voice, neither Gira or Jarboe, proclaims in a pathetic manner his superiority to an unidentified lesser who depends on him. Airy keyboards repetitively play throughout, highlighting the speaker's increasingly twisted confession and accusations.
When the first actual "song" on the record appears, "Helpless Child," electric and acoustic guitars along with subtle keyboards delicately frame the narrative Gira is about to iterate. And in his controlled delivery, we can hear the cracks in his protagonist's psyche; his heart is bursting with longing and regret. This is the articulation of what is to come over the next two hours, full of warped soul and bent love, cruelty and atrocity: "Now you be the mother/and I'll be your fool/I'll hide myself deep inside your crimson pool. The muddy water runs/Beneath your folds/You won't let me breathe, you won't let me go. Now you be the stranger/and I'll be the white-skinned son/You'll blacken my innocence, with sugar and opium./The children were suffocating down in your damp cave/And you were the mother, and I was the sleeping slave/Protect me from violence, hold me in your cool lips/You drug me with kindness, I can pretend I exist/Now you be the only child/I'll suck on your breast/You'll feed me with gasoline, I'll burn my name in your head."
Here, redemption is a matter for the past to reconcile, the cupboard is empty and so is the bed. What is longed for is wholly absent and growing ever fainter as memory.
This is what Swans do, they read the unmentionable and mirror it back to us in a language that is enough for us to understand and from so far outside our everyday experience it borders on the sacred. What Swans seem to be saying in these songs is that these elements really are part of our lives.
Things do get somewhat aggressive on "Yum-Yab Killers," a live track where Jarboe chants over a drum intense mix laden with woolly guitars: "I said come here, dear, you know what I'll do/I'll make you my mirror of the things that I chew." Alternately, she spits the words or they drip from her mouth like poisoned honey.
From primal scream to funereal modal excess to ambient noir, sound forms to near-heraldic balladry, Swans have looked into the mouth of the vast unknown and given it a name, and in the process they've named themselves. They've raided the musical past for forgotten treasures—their own and others—and have made use of them in a new way.
(It is interesting to note their appropriation of Pink Floyd's "One Of These Days" on "The Sound." Swans turn a once merely disturbing song by the former band into something so ominous, future-phobic and frightening, getting to the end of its 13 minutes is an experience in tension).
The copper disc is only a predictable extension of disc one in that nothing is ever done predictably, though everything has a consistent "feel." Each note, beat and cluster, is in a constant state of metamorphosis.
"Soundtracks For The Blind" breaks itself open and reveals itself slowly. There are epiphanies as well as black holes to be found, sometimes within the same track.
In all, "Soundtracks For The Blind" is almost unbearably beautiful. In its lush appearance it is seductive; in its loss, unmerciful; in its harrowing vision, it never flinches from horror; in its sheer volume and musical landscape, it is exhaustive without bankrupting itself creatively.
On "Soundtracks For The Blind" Swans ask questions that most of us don't want to be asked, let alone answer. One of the most sexually charged and emotionally honest recordings I have ever heard, its expressions of lust and shame allow us to live inside it and take comfort in its excesses.
This is a rare thing in music, that a document, particularly a final one, can encompass the darkness of the entire world in one place. Like I said, I am having a tough time accepting the fact that Swans won't be around anymore. God knows we need their courage and flawed grace more than ever.
11/23/1996 | Melody Maker | Jonathan Selzer
Swans | Soundtracks for the Blind | Review
like fragments from a world whose foundations are in the last stages of erosion
So this is it, the last album proper by my favourite, most fatalistic band, a band who could give rise to the most transcendent of feelings only because they'd detail their own limits with such meticulous care, a band who sensed such overwhelming destiny they were stricken by it. The first time I played a Swans record, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Listening to them now, ravaged, wretched, as terminal a document for the millenium as you'll ever encounter, they sound as though they're beyond belief, as tragic as an unrequited martyr.
"Soundtracks For The Blind" is what's left now that all Swans' endeavour has burnt itself out. It's composed from shreds—tape loops, "found" samples, recorded testimonies of spiritually lost mid-Westerners—isolated moments blended together, like fragments from a world whose foundations are in the last stages of erosion. When they do become galvanised, it's not through any will of their own, so much as from a final, dying vision—but it's a glorious and redemptive vision, succumbing to an overpowering feeling of loss. Michael Gira has never sounded quite as raw, as naked as this. His voice is now a riddled rasp. "Animus" is as noble and as disconsolate as Judy Garland's last performances, with hopeless longing to match.
Swans are way ahead of you. They've already reached the point of post-millennial tension. Majestic in its scope, pathetic in its humanity, "Soundtracks For The Blind" fulfils Swans' irrevocable fate and their tragedy, that they'd surpass themselves. Into oblivion.
2/1/1997 | The Equipment Authority | Kurt B. Reighley
Swans | Soundtracks for the Blind | Review
an ambitious collage that folds found sounds, tape loops, and studio recordings into a dense aural melange
Often compared with Sonic Youth, Swans has consistently displayed greater stylistic diversity than its down-town N.Y.C. art-noise colleagues without deviating from frontman Michael Gira's singularly bleak vision. This, the band's last release (supposedly Swans is calling it quits), is no exception. It's an ambitious collage that folds found sounds, tape loops, and studio recordings into a dense aural melange.
Soundtracks for the Blind eschews conventional verse/chorus/bridge structures, favoring experiments with timbre and juxtaposition instead. The 1-2-3 transition from the disorienting samples of "Her Mouth is Filled with Honey" into the churning rock repetitions of "Blood Section," followed by the twisted howl of "Hypogirl" (sung by longtime collaborator Jarboe), could prompt a case of whiplash. Testimonies from unspecified individuals, as in the unnerving "Minus Something," offset majestic instrumental interludes of cello, bells, guitar, and keyboards. Often the most captivating elements border on subliminal, such as the fax tones buried in "Red Velvet Corridor" or the organ accents of "I Love You This Much."
The cumulative sensation of Soundtracks' disparate elements is akin to eavesdropping on dozens of psychotherapy sessions, hearing seemingly disassociated sets of ideas underpinned with a constant surge of raw feeling. Swans has been criticized for a decade and a half for being a difficult band for listeners to understand, but you don't have to know the details of the emotional impetus behind Gira's music to appreciate its raw power.