If you’re a fan of those “Kids React to” videos, then the group that you’ve probably been hoping to see them inflict on the unsuspecting tykes is Swans. They’ve decided to do just that and the results were predictably unpredictable. Some of these kids seem to like Swans more than I do, in fact.
Skwisgaar Skwigelf, who posted the video added:
Shout out to the kid at 3:25, the only one who actually gets Swans.
In its nearly 35-year history, the utterly singular band Swans has elevated American underground music to high art, appealing to fans of goth, no-wave, industrial, experimental noise, and doom metal without ever actually expressing or even properly fitting in to any of those genres. By the late ‘80s, the band’s very name became a badge for a musical chimera of brutality and grandeur that nobody else has ever quite matched, though some black metal bands like Ulver and post-metal bands like Isis have veered admirably close.
The first incarnation of the band reached its apotheosis with the utterly magnificent 1987 album Children of God (though this writer also favors the dizzyingly experimental Greed/Holy Money era of the band), on which the band’s singer, leader, and lone constant member Michael Gira cut his trademark tales of self-abasement and profound suffering with heavy doses of religious imagery. It was fucking jarring at the time—when the band that became notorious for songs like “Money is Flesh” and “Raping a Slave” made a masterpiece double LP on the opening song of which its singer bellowed PRAISE THE LORD! PRAISE GOD!, that shit turned some heads. It holds up extraordinarily well, and is justly regarded as a classic.
The band ended in 1997, when Gira formed the neo-folkish Angels of Light, members of which band ultimately re-formed Swans with Gira in 2010, releasing My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, which, though it clocked in at 45 minutes, would prove to be a short-form release for the reconstituted band, who’d go on to make three TRIPLE LPS of surpassing excellence. 2012’s The Seer and 2014’s To Be Kind are caustic, sprawling and all-consuming exercises in tension and release, built around songs of up to 30 minutes in duration crafted from hypnotically repetitive drones and post-rock crescendoes.
The third, and as it happens, final expression of this phase of the band is the new The Glowing Man, easily the equal of its mind-blowing predecessors. It’s more atmospheric than skullcrushing, and actually makes for an enjoyable background listen, but close attention to it is still as intense and emotionally taxing as any Swans output. That said, it’d be imprudent and disingenuous not to address this: The Glowing Man includes a chilling song called “When Will I Return?,” on which Gira’s wife Jennifer sings a harrowing first-person account of sexual assault. It’s a breathtaking song in multiple senses of the word, but Mr. Gira himself has recently been accused of just such an assault by Larkin Grimm, a singer whose work he’s produced. He doesn’t deny that something happened, but he characterizes the 2008 encounter as consensual. Grimm characterizes it as rape, but according to some close to her, she may have a burgeoning history of specious accusations. Both of their public statements with regard to that incident are published in this Pitchfork article.
Here’s “When Will I Return?” As stated above, the lyrics describe an assault, so proceed or don’t with that in mind.
Gira was kind enough to take time to chat with Dangerous Minds about the new album.
Dangerous Minds: I understand this is the last album from Swans as the band is currently constituted?
Michael Gira: Yes sir.
DM: What needs to change? Personnel, direction? Everything?
MG: All of it. We’ve been in this configuration for seven years, and I think it’s the most fruitful musical period of my life, it’s been wonderful. I can just see that if it were to continue, the satyr would begin eating its own corpse. So I think it’s time to change things up. I’m going to continue Swans, just not as a permanent band. I’m more inclined to have a rotating cast of members. It was like that for a long period during the ‘80s and ‘90s so I’m just going back to that mode. It’s kind of more responsibility than I’m able to deal with anymore to have a permanent band, and the band members have things they want to do in their lives as well—it’s well over 200 days a year that we’re together, and it’s a huge commitment. We just want to fly free like little birds.
DM:The Glowing Man is your third consecutive 3XLP. That’s surely unprecedented, right?
MG: I have no idea. It’s a double CD, triple album. It’s the format that works for the music. At a certain point I decided I didn’t care about figuring out a way to fit it on to a certain format—just let the music follow its path, and then figure out how to release it, and whatever that was would be how it is.
DM: The composition strategy on To Be Kind came largely from developing songs from improvisations that happened in concert. Is that the case again here?
MG: That’s one facet of how the record was made, yes. Another facet was that I’d have songs that I’d bring in to the studio on acoustic guitar, and those songs would be developed and orchestrated in the studio with the band. The songs on the record that came out of live performance were “The Cloud of Forgetting,” “The Cloud of Unknowing,” “Frankie M” and “The Glowing Man.” The rest were developed as I described.
DM: I’m curious about the connection between The Glowing Man’s “The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black” and the old Sonic Youth song “The World Looks Red,” for which you wrote the lyrics about 35 years ago. Why revisit those lyrics again after all this time?
MG: Because they were there? They were there in my head—I was playing what I thought was a pretty compelling little guitar figure, and I was utterly bereft of words for it—as I’m sometimes wont to be these days, I had no words whatsoever. I just started singing those words as place-fillers, and I though why don’t I just fucking use them? I’d recently reconnected with Thurston, so maybe he was on my mind and that’s why I thought of that song, but it felt like closing the circle.
DM: Maybe it’s because the lyrics made me mindful of Sonic Youth, but the guitar figure you’re talking about reminded me of their song “Shadow of a Doubt.” I’d wondered if there was a tribute or homage thing going on.
MG: Not at all, I just had this thing I was playing and the words came to mind. I don’t actually remember how that song goes.
DM: Who is Frankie M?
MG: He’s my banker. [laughs] No, he’s someone I know, a very troubled soul. Preternaturally intelligent, but also spectacularly fucked up. And it was a tribute to him.
DM: Is “The Glowing Man” anyone in particular?
MG: It’s an allusion to a state of mind, I suppose. That moment when your mind incinerates, which I find myself experiencing quite often during live performances, and I’m hoping the audience is experiencing something similar. I don’t mean to be grandiose but when it works it’s really transcendent. I wouldn’t even take credit for it, it’s like a benevolent angel from the underworld was released to take over the sound, and we follow it.
DM: Will there be a final tour?
MG: Absolutely, we’re preparing for it now. We’ll be rehearsing for three weeks and we tour for 18 months. We’ll be doing some songs from the album which we’re going to hack away at, and find new forms for them. And I’m working on some new songs now, which I want to work up with the band, and we’ll see where it goes. I want it to be constantly changing throughout the tour, I don’t want to just do some kind of set that replicates the album.
The Glowing Man will be released on June 17th. One version of the release will be a deluxe CD box that includes a 28-minute DVD of live footage from 2015. It is Dangerous Minds’ extreme privilege to debut that video in its entirety here today.
Michael Gira’s band Swans have shape-shifted but plenty. They made their reputation with an extraordinarily punishing and shockingly nihilistic take on no-wave music in the 1980s, culminating in the colossal masterpiece Children of God. They then curve-balled their fans with relatively introspective and quietly mournful LPs at the decade’s turn. The ‘90s saw further experimentation, ending with the final album of their first incarnation, Soundtracks for the Blind in 1996. But whatever Swans’ approach, be it the bludgeoning riffs of their early years, the tape loop experiments of the mid ‘80s, or the early ‘90s acoustic efforts, the band’s oeuvre has been united, partly by musical and lyrical darkness, certainly, but also by the ability of all the band’s many lineups to conjure the elemental.
Swans went silent in 1997, after which Gira continued to work both solo and in The Angels of Light. Then, in 2010, Swans reappeared, with Gira and stalwart guitarist Norman Westberg leading an otherwise entirely new lineup. Quoth Gira, from a recent phone conversation:
I just wanted to continue making music. I was doing the Angels of Light project for 13 years and I was growing a little bored with it. I wanted to do something a little more all-consuming, intense. So I started to think seriously about reconstituting Swans, I thought that was the best path. There are certain ways of making sound, and avenues that were maybe started that weren’t fully explored that I wanted to continue, and that pushed into new things. Once we started working on Swans it became its own new entity, and opened up in ways that I never would have anticipated.
This reinvigorated Swans released My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, an album that met with instant acclaim. As if to prove that this was no fluke, they followed it with the triple-LP The Seer, an album so successfully ambitious it easily equalled Children of God at the absolute top of the band’s discography. In mid-May, the band will release a second triple-LP, To Be Kind, with a heavy-friends lineup that boasts vocalists Al Spyx, St. Vincent, and Little Annie, and Ministry/R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin. I wonder, who else has done two consecutive triple-LPs? Anyone? And furthermore, who has done two consecutive stunningly awesome ones?
Having only gotten all the way through it twice, I’m still just going to commit to this: To Be Kind is very nearly as astonishing as its predecessor, and with exceptions noted below, it’s just perhaps a bit less musically diverse—many songs here share a noticeably similar emotive arc (21st Century Swans seem to have taken a liking to post-rock crescendoes), though fortunately it’s a compelling and effective one. And most of these songs are loooooong, but this, too, is a good thing; every musical element is treated as though it has great value, and is given plenty of room to grow and breathe and live before new ideas and dynamic shifts creep in. Both albums have half-hour set pieces, and my chat with Gira revealed that the new one is actually an outgrowth of the previous.
”Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture“ grew out of playing “The Seer” live. As that song was winding down, we started improvising, and what you hear on this album is what came out of that over a year of playing. These pieces kind of developed along the way, and I gradually developed words for them. I was reading a friend’s book about one of the instigators of the slave revolt in Haiti, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and so I started throwing in signifiers for that gentleman, and it became that song.
Though it parallels The Seer in other ways, and it’s easy to conclude that two oceanic-sounding triple albums could work as a matched set, Gira holds that the albums aren’t meant to be taken as a pair:
I don’t conceptualize how things fit together with what came before, or the next thing. The one thing I do try to accomplish is not to repeat ourselves exactly, just to take certain threads from what we’ve done and move forward with those and leave other things behind. I tried to avoid the kind of long soundscape kind of passages that were on The Seer, I felt that would be redundant to do again, and wanted to push more of the groove aspect that was nascent in the touring band.
The groove-oriented songs are a welcome surprise. Passages in “She Loves Us” and “Oxygen” have moments that could pass for straightforward rock, moreso than any other Swans songs I could name off the top of my head, and “A Little God in My Hands” sounds like a new direction altogether. Even when toying with decidedly not-so-Swans ideas, though, Swans, as always, sound unequivocally like Swans. Here are “A Little God…,” which has been online for a few weeks now, and “Oxygen,” which debuted earlier this week on The Quietus. (Incidentally, if you’re not already reading that site, good lord, get on that already, it’s fantastic.)
Swans, “A Little God In My Hands”
Lastly, here are early live versions of “Just A Little Boy” and the title track, recorded in Barcelona last summer.
This is my prized possession, but a friend is in a dire situation so I’m listing this for sale.
This the original master reel for Swans’ masterpiece, “Holy Money”. It’s one of a kind (obviously) and you will never see this again unless whoever purchases this one decides to sell it. The majority of these master reels are still in the possession of Jarboe, from whom I purchased this particular one.
This is an 1/4 track Ampex 406 reel. It has no inner sheet but the box has the full info written on it. Michael Gira’s handwriting is what is on the outside of the box. The reel box has “Swans” etc in black marker in Michael Gira’s handwriting. You are getting an attached signed letter of authenticity from Jarboe. It is stamped in blood.
To PLAY this reel (and it is 25 years old) you would have to do what is called “bake” the reel. And sometimes that works and other times it doesn’t work. It just depends on the condition of a particular old reel. I don’t know what kind of equipment is used to bake reels but some engineers know how to do it.
This reel has been stored for years in NYC and was at one time in Swans rehearsing studio on the lower east side. It is a part of history.
There you have it. If you wanted it four years ago and lost out, your second chance is here.
Holy Money came at a pivotal period in Swans’ development. Their debut EP was a straightforwardly No-Wave record, and they quickly morphed from that into a monstrously brutal machine, with menacing tribal drumming and punishingly slow and noisy guitar riffs underscoring the horrifically self-abasing lyrics of singer/visionary Michael Gira. The Young God EP is representative of the period, and is completely awesome (it contains the notorious “Raping a Slave”).
But perhaps feeling painted into a corner, Swans began casting about for new sources of inspiration. Bassist Algys Kizys and singer Jarboe were added to the band, and the new lineup experimented with keyboards, tape loops, acoustic instruments, and frankly, restraint. Holy Money and its sister/predecessor LP Greed were both recorded in the same sessions, and contain alternate versions of some of the same songs—there’s a very good reason both albums were reissued on CD as a single package (bargainously, along with Young God and the Cop album). These are transitional albums leading to the stunning fruition of the band on Children Of God, which was THE must-have Swans recording until the recent The Seer. But often, transitional albums are the most interesting, and Holy Money remains my favorite by the band. Check out the four tacks from the reel for sale:
Swans - “Fool (#2)”
Swans - “Another You”
Swans - “Money is Flesh (#2)”—the track that permanently cemented me as a fan
Hard Rock was the first release from Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! label. One side of the hand-labeled cassette had a fucked-up spoken word piece by The Swans’ Michael Gira titled “I’m An Infant, I Worship Him” and the other a dark short story by Lydia Lunch, “Wet Me on a Dead Night.” Both pieces were recorded in Gira’s apartment in February of 1984.
The cassette listed as the label’s address, 84 Eldridge St, #5, New York City, 10002. I think it’s safe to assume that young Thurston was the one making the dubs and that this was where he lived at the time. I picked mine up at the legendary ‘zine store See Hear on 7th Street in the East Village. I lived down the block from the store when I was in my early 20s and I’d see Moore there often, more than anyone else save for the proprietor, Ted Gottfried (who, it occurs to me, has a ukulele combo called Sonic Uke.)
It’s pretty extreme stuff. The Gira piece is simply depraved. It represents a hefty dollop of what made The Swan’s live shows so incredibly powerful and scary—well, that and the mind-splitting volume—back in the 80s. You want intense? Go see The Swans live. They will pulverize you. It’s like getting beaten up by pure sound.
YouTube commenter, “falloutMAN84” mused:
I wonder if when Michael Gira was writing this he thought.. hmm, maybe I should keep this to myself. Nah, fuck it…
Er, yes, that’s right: DO NOT even contemplate putting this on where you work for any reason whatsoever. Not even for a minute or two. The rest of the cubicle farm will shun you, it’s virtually guaranteed. You have been strongly warned.
No matter where you are, proceed at your own psychic risk. I probably should have posted this on Halloween. I wonder if Moore’s deal with the Universal Music Group to distribute Ecstatic Peace releases covers this one? Even if it would I’d think the chances of the UMe re-releasing Hard Rock are slim to none.
Michael Gira, “I’m An Infant, I Worship Him”
Lydia Lunch, “Wet Me on a Dead Night.”
Bonus clip, Swans’ “A Screw” from the It’s Clean, It Just Looks Dirty video: