- Swans (band)
Infobox musical artist
Name = Swans
Background = group_or_band
New York City, New York, U.S.
Art rock Noise rock
No Wavecite web |url=http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2008/01/26/bomas126.xml |title=Nobody knows No Wave] cite web |url=http://www.dustedmagazine.com/features/726 |title=Just Say Yes: No Wave by Marc Masters] cite web |url=http://brooklynrail.org/2007/02/music/addicted-to-sound |title=Addicted to Sound: An Interview with Michael Gira]
Years_active = 1982-1997
Young God Records Neutral Records Homestead Records
MCA Records Invisible Records Atavistic Records
URL = [http://www.swans.pair.com Official Web site]
The Living Jarboe
Roli Mosimann Algis Kizys Ted Parsons
Swans was an influential American
post-punkband active from 1982 to 1997, led by singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira.
Swans was one of the few groups to emerge from the early 1980s New York
No Wavescene intact. Formed by Gira in 1982, the Swans employed a shifting lineup of musicians until their dissolution in 1997. Besides Gira, the only other constant members were keyboardist/vocalist/songwriter Jarboefrom 1984 to 1997, and semi-constant guitarist Norman Westberg. The band was noted for droning vocals and strange instrumentation.
Early Swans (1982–1985)
The earliest known lineup of Swans comprised Gira on bass guitar and vocals, Jonathan Kane on drums, and Sue Hanel on guitar. Hanel's only recordings with the group are on the compilation "
Body to Body, Job to Job", but the ambiguous personnel credits do not make it clear on which songs she performed; Kane stated that "Sue was the most fearsome guitarist we’d ever heard in New York. She was unbelievable." cite web |url=http://www.younggodrecords.com/PressDetail.asp?PT_ID=80&ArticleID=393 |title=Jonathan Kane and Swans]
Hanel did not stay long in the group, and by the time of their recording debut, she had been replaced by Bob Pezzola. This lineup of the group also featured saxophonist Daniel Galli-Duani. The debut EP, "Swans", released on Labor, is markedly different from anything they would do later. The plodding tempos and distorted, detuned guitar work is reminiscent of such
post-punkoutfits as Joy Division. However, the minimal chord structures owe more to blues, while the jazzinstrumentation and awkward time signatures are evidence of Swans' roots in the No Wavescene of the late 1970s, which had more or less collapsed by the release of "Cop". The closest reference point to the early Swans sound, as pointed out by one internet reviewer, is probably The Birthday Party, although far less overtly satirical.
Early press comparisons
In the same article cited above, Kane compares Swans to blues icon Chester Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin' Wolf. While this comparison might initially seem unlikely, there are in fact some similarities worth noting -- the music of early Swans was often based on a single
riff, played repeatedly to hypnotic effect. Some of Burnett's songs -- especially the songs penned by Burnett himself -- have a similar structure and quality. Their early music was typified by slow and grinding guitarnoise, and pounding drums, punctuated by Gira's morbid and violent lyrics (inspired by Jean Genetand the Marquis de Sade), usually barked or shouted. Critic Ned Raggettdescribes Swans' early recordings as "aggressive beyond words." cite web |url=http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:hz6wtr6qkl3x~T1 |title="Greed" review]
Their first full-length release, "Filth" (
1983), featured driving, choppy rhythms and abrasive drums. The whole is reminiscent of earlier No Wavebands, such as Mars, and the work of Swans' contemporaries, like Sonic Youth's " Confusion Is Sex" and " Kill Yr Idols"; but Raggett contends that "early Swans really is like little else on the planet before or since." cite web |url=http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:66jeea104xs7~T1 |title="Filth" review] "Filth" was the first album to feature guitarist Norman Westberg, who would play a vital role in much of Swans' music, and would be featured on every subsequent studio album other than "Love of Life".
"Cop" (1984) and the originally untitled "Young God" EP were both released in 1984 and re-released together on CD in 1992. This release has been known by several names, usually by one of its two A-sides, such as "I Crawled" or, infamously, as "Raping a Slave". This release is often confused with their self-titled debut. The music continues in the same vein as "Filth", and is again vaguely reminiscent of
heavy metal musicplayed in extreme slow motion. Swans were, in this era, comprised of Gira on vocals, Westberg on guitar, Harry Crosby on bass guitar, and Roli Mosimannon drums. Gira's vocals had changed slightly, becoming slowly more melodic, although the snarl still remained. Some of the songs on the EP, particularly "Young God" and "I Crawled", have an actual vocal melody, if rudimentary, hinting at the sounds of future releases. "Young God" is considered by many to be the best of their early albums for this reason. [It is also, by critics and fans alike, referred to as their "scariest" album. Even objectively, it could be taken into consideration that the title song is from the point of view of serial killer Ed Gein.] Justin Broadrickshared this impression of the group:
One of the trademarks of Swans' early period was playing at painfully loud volumes during concerts, to the point where some audience members would
vomitFact|date=March 2008 or the policewould stop the show. cite web |url=http://swans.pair.com/PRESS/int_sec.html |title=Swans interview with Seconds (1996)] cite web |url=http://spikemagazine.com/0903swans.php |title=Swan Song: Spike Magazine] This lent a reputation to the name Swans which was one of the contributing factors in Gira's retirement of the band in 1997. cite web |url=http://swans.pair.com/PRESS/art_CMJ.html |title=The Final Sacrifice: M. Gira retires Swans]
Mid-period Swans (1986–1988)
Collaboration with the Living Jarboe begins
1986's "Greed" had a new addition to the group with vocalist/keyboardist
Jarboejoining the band. [ Jarboe's first official recording with the band was on the " Time is Money (Bastard)" 12-inch, credited simply with "scream" (specifically at the start of the title track). By the time the track was recorded in the summer of 1985, she had already been in the band for about a month. Her first released tracks as lead vocalist and keyboardist for the band were on "You Need Me" on " Holy Money" and "Blackmail", a B-side from the " A Screw" 12". They both appear on the original CD version of "Holy Money" and the "Greed/Holy Money" compilation, while a minimal version of the latter appears on "Children of God".] Her presence began a slow thawing in the overt brutality and energy of the Swans' early work. For example, both the opening track, "Fool," and the title track are sung, albeit rather ominously.
Collaboration with Algis Kizys begins
"Greed" also marked the introduction of bassist
Algis Kizysas a long-time, near-constant member. The album is not as brutal or noisy as their previous releases but is still an extremely ominous and dark record. This was followed by its "twin" album, "Holy Money", the first to feature Jarboeon lead vocals.
Introduction of acoustic elements
Holy Money" was also the first album by Swans to incorporate acoustic elements. In particular, the eight-minute dirge "Another You" starts with a bluesy harmonicaintroduction. It also marks the introduction of religious themes in Swans records with the sacrificial ode "A Hanging", complete with gospel-like backing vocals from Jarboe.
"Children Of God" (1987) further expanded
Jarboe's role, acting as a foil to Michael Gira's tales of suffering, torture, and humiliation. The stories portrayed here, however, are ever the more unusual, given their juxtaposition—and admixture—with religious imagery. The intention was neither to mock nor embrace religion, but experiment with the power inherent in its messages and the hypocrisy of many of its leaders. [http://web.archive.org/web/20030304044336/http://www.webinfo.co.uk/crackedmachine/swans.htm Interview with Michael Gira] ]
Some songs, such as the raging "Beautiful Child," retain the vocal style of earlier days, but many are quite tame. The almost baroque "In My Garden," for example, added an extra dimension with
piano(used before on "Fool" and "Sealed in Skin" to far grimmer effect) and acoustic guitar. Some songs walk the line on this front. Obvious examples include "Sex, God, Sex" (heavy metal-like bass riffs with blues and gospel-inspired singing), "Blood and Honey" (a murder balladwith early post-rocktendencies), and "Blind Love" (a lengthy song, alternating between intoned vocals and violent instrumental passages). Gira considers this to be the band's major turning point.
Later Swans (1988-1997)
After the "Children of God" album, Gira professed himself tired with the band's fearsome reputation for noise, feeling that their audience now had expectations that he had no intention of fulfilling. He made a conscious decision to tone down the band's sound, introducing more acoustic elements and foregrounding
Jarboeas a singer. The first results of this shift in direction were the two records recorded by Gira and Jarboe under the names Skin (in Europe) and World of Skin(in the USA). The first, " Blood, Women, Roses", featured Jarboe on lead vocals, and the second, " Shame, Humility, Revenge", featured Gira on lead vocals. Both were recorded together in 1987, although " Shame, Humility, Revenge" was not released until 1988. These albums were full of slow, ethereal, melancholy, dirge-like songs, sounding like stripped down acoustic versions of the "Children of God" songs.
The band continued this transformation with an unexpected cover of the
Joy Divisionsong " Love Will Tear Us Apart," which was released in 1988 on Product Inc.in a confusing array of 7- and 12-inch formats. Both Gira and Jarboesang lead vocals on different versions of the song. In later years Gira dismissed this release as a mistake, and for a long time refused to reissue his own vocal version, although Jarboe's version was re-released much sooner.
Major label debut
This single was followed by "The Burning World" (1989), Swans' first and only major label album. Released on Uni/
MCA Records, the record was produced by Bill Laswelland expanded the acoustic palette introduced on "Greed" and "Children of God". For this album, the core line-up of Gira, Jarboeand Westberg was augmented by session musicians, and the distinctive heavy guitar element of their earlier work was toned down significantly in favor of folk and world musicelements. Though Swans would later explore more acoustic music with similar moods, Gira has stated that, while he admires much of Laswell's work, his efforts with Swans were simply a mismatch. Certainly the production has a muddy quality that is at odds with the crystalline sound of other Swans’ albums.
Flirtations with pop music
"The Burning World" was the first Swans album to feature more conventional pop melodies. Gira's lyrics still favored themes of depression,
death, greed and despair, but were actually sung, rather than the chanting or shouting typical of earlier material. They even covered Steve Winwood's popular Blind Faithhit "Can't Find My Way Home" in 1989, one of two singles from the LP.
In 1990, Gira and
Jarboereleased the third and final World of Skinalbum, " Ten Songs From Another World". It was less successful than the previous two 'Skin' albums.
End of major label involvement
Michael Gira's disillusionment with their Uni/MCA exploits led to " White Light from the Mouth of Infinity" (1991), a successful blending of earlier hard rock and later pop styles. Produced by Gira, the album blended acoustic rock, bluesand hypnotic guitar noise successfully, resulting in an album more complex than anything they had released in the past. This album was followed by "Love of Life" (recorded by Martin Bisiin 1992), and the EP single " Love of Life/Amnesia", taking the group even farther into experimentation, and then " The Great Annihilator" (1995), considered to be one of the band's most accessible releases, possibly through being their most straightforward. The songwriting style and musical approach, however, would take a more unusual turn the following year.
Demise of Swans
With other projects occupying his time,
Michael Giradecided to bring an end to the group with one last album and a world tour. " Soundtracks For The Blind" (1996) was the result: a mammoth two-disc album comprising Jarboe-supplied field recordings, experimental music, dark ambientsoundscapes, post-industrial epics, post rocksuites and acoustic guitar. Gira, Jarboe and other long time collaborators created one of the most highly regarded albums of their career. " Swans Are Dead" (1998) brings together live recordings from their 1995 and 1997 tours, documenting the energy and stage presence of Michael Gira and Jarboe. In an interview with Soundsect, Gira revealed that there is more live material that may be released in the future. He described these unreleased recordings as "fairly spectacular". cite web |url=http://www.soundsect.com/feature.php?id=12 |title=soundsect.com - An Interview with Michael Gira]
After dissolving Swans, Gira formed
Angels of Light, continued his work with Young God Records and Jarboe continued her solo work.
*"Filth" - (1983)
*"Cop" - (1984)
*"Greed" - (1986)
Holy Money" - (1986)
*"Children of God" - (1987)
*"The Burning World" - (1989)
White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity" - (1991)
*"Love of Life" - (1992)
The Great Annihilator" - (1995)
Die Tür Ist Zu" - (1996)
Soundtracks for the Blind" (1996)
*"Swans" - (1982)
*"Young God" - (1984)
Time is Money (Bastard)" - (1986)
A Screw" - (1986)
*"New Mind" - (1987)
*"Love Will Tear Us Apart (red)" - (1988)
*"Love Will Tear Us Apart (black)" [There are two versions of this Joy Division cover, one sung by Jarboe ("black") and another by Gira ("red"), and at least a dozen versions of the EP.] - (1988)
Can't Find My Way Home" - (1989)
*"Saved" - (1989)
Love of Life/Amnesia" - (1992)
Celebrity Lifestyle" - (1994)
Failure/Animus" - (1996)
Live and other releases
Public Castration Is A Good Idea" [Live] - (1986)
Feel Good Now" [Live] - (1989)
Anonymous Bodies in an Empty Room" [Live] - (1990)
Body To Body, Job To Job" [Live/Compilation] - (1982-85/1991)
*"Real Love" [Live] - (1986/1992)
* "Omniscience" [Live] - (1992)
Kill the Child" [Live] - (1985-87/1996)
*"I Am the Sun/My Buried Child" [Live] - (1997)
*"Children of God/World of Skin" [Compilation] - (1997)
Swans Are Dead" [Live] - (1998)
*"Cop/Young God/Greed/Holy Money" [Compilation] - (1999)
Various Failures" [Compilation] - (1999)
Forever Burned" [Compilation] - (2003)
* [http://www.swans.pair.com Official Swans site]
* [http://soundsect.com/feature.php?id=12 Soundsect Interview]
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