In the year 2000, I think (no this isn’t a Pulp song), I came across a record store that was closing down in central Leicester. In amongst the dusty, unwanted piles of sale CDs I found a dirty, damaged digi-pack which caught my attention despite the minimalist design. It transpired to be the last stand of Michael Gira and Swans (the monumental ‘soundtracks for the blind’ double set) and over the following years I tracked down the majority of a back catalogue that was so varied and changeable that various parts of it could belong to different bands. The beauty of Swans, for me, lay in the fact that your favourite album could change depending on your mood with the curiously horrible ‘cop’ providing the soundtrack to the blackest rage, while the ethereal, tormented ‘soundtracks for the blind’ was better suited to a more gentle, hypnotic melancholy bought on by too much reflection upon past mistakes.
Gira’s subsequent effort, Angels of light, was a markedly different affair. Dark, and sometimes unremittingly bleak (‘everything’s good here’ veers between the whimsical and the acoustically brutal) Angels were more traditionally song-orientated while Swans could take one riff and expand it on into infinity, building and augmenting until it became its own twisted, cyclic entity pulsing in the darkness. This is the sound that Gira has captured on ‘My father will guide me up a rope to the sky’, the new release from a band long laid to rest, resurrected and rebuilt to introduce a whole new generation of starry-eyed innocents to the inner-workings of Michael Gira’s tormented vision.
The clues were all there on ‘I am not insane’. A limited edition release, ostensibly designed to fund the creation of the new record, it featured none-more-basic acoustic recordings of ideas for the album which managed to be both darkly compelling and starkly beautiful at the same time, while the accompanying DVD and book of drawings fleshed out the ideas offering a tantalising snapshot of what the reco0rd might be. Still, no-one dared hope that it could be quite as good as this.
Clearly influenced by Gira’s time in Angels, the new Swans sits somewhere between ‘everything is good here’ and ‘Soundtracks for the blind’ (a sound largely evident on the ‘Swans are dead’ live CD) with the opening track ‘no words, no thoughts’ slithering through the speakers like a semi-comatose Viper, twitching and confused, but still deadly when roused. As guitars scratch across the brutally industrial surface of the track, drills and saws pulse and tear holes in your consciousness and it’s clear that this is not going to be a simple revisiting of past glories but rather a whole new chapter in the evolution of a band whose every album highlighted a development that most artists could never hope to match. Gira’s voice is still the highlight. Unerringly deep, his tormented baritone carries more emotional weight than any amount of screaming while the fascinating percussion drives the song forward impulsively with martial snare and pounding bass dragging you into the darkness. The heavy use of repetition allows each riff room to breathe and develop, often to ear-shattering volumes before the next section of the song begins the process anew so that the tracks ebb and flow without hinting at anything so obvious as a chorus and all of this, of course, is just the first song.
‘Reeling the liars in’ is surprisingly close to its acoustic precursor, with the lyrics carrying a level of spite that stands entirely contrary to the folksy delivery of the track. ‘Jim’, however, (the opening track from ‘I am not insane’) lives up to its initial promise of developing into a thing of horrific beauty, as it rises out of a swamp of gently beautiful percussion and throbbing bass. It shows you just how far the compositions could develop and there are times when you wonder whether Gira is truly in control of its art or if it is in control of him as the overwhelming guitars tear chunks from your soul towards the songs ecstatic, sweaty climax. ‘My birth’ needs no gentle introduction, rather it hurtles at you as you stand, caught in its headlights shaking with fear and anticipation, and the band come on like the Velvet underground filtered through a tinny factory PA, curiously in time with the machinery its seeking to drown out. Gira’s drawl is a multi-faceted thing of wonder while the band seem to be in thrall to the music they’re making, just creating for the sheer joy of being able to do so.
For those of you who heard ‘I am not insane’ the one bolt from the blue is ‘you f****ng people make me sick’, a jarring, ugly, featuring vocals from Devendra Banhart whose gently menacing vocal tops an echoing guitar noise that is directly comparable to the astounding ‘helpless child’ from the ‘soundtracks…’ album before a thunderous outro induces panic to set in. ‘Inside Madeline’ is a lengthy jam, seemingly built up around one insistent riff while all manner of instrumentation crawls around it. Like the strangely comforting yet disturbing title, the track builds from nowhere until it reaches a droning conclusion that is enough to terrify all but the hardiest of sonic adventurers. Largely instrumental, and thus mercifully brief, it captures the sheer sonic power of Swans even when they’re not attempting to imitate the sound of a thousand gears grinding together in the heart of a broken and rusty machine, before the unlikely, Parisian feel of the ending draws the track to a close that is thoroughly confusing and entirely wonderful.
‘Eden prison’ is a throw back to the crushing rhythms of early Swans crossed with the vocal gymnastics of ‘all souls rising’ and thus mercilessly crushes everything underfoot as it rolls roughshod over you, especially towards its massive conclusion. That just leaves ‘little mouth’ to close this astonishing collection, which it does in truly terrifying fashion, opening with atmospheric noise before segueing into Gira at his most melodic.
How does one judge Swans? A band by whom most other artists are measured, Swans are a force of nature, elemental and untamed and entirely a law unto themselves. Gira’s decision to reform only those members of the band he felt could drive the music forward (hence no Jarboe) says a lot about the motivation behind this – no-one but Swans could have made this album – and the result is a work of solemn, dark beauty that will live long in the hearts of fans and newcomers alike thanks to a mesmerising performance from everyone involved. For those who lived in hope of a Swans reunion, this is everything that they could have hoped for; for those who have yet to experience the sheer power of their music, this is a perfect introduction – quite simply this is an astonishing, heavy, punishing, raw, emotionally honest, towering giant of an album that is unlikely to be equalled and there is no doubt that the new songs will excel in the live arena utterly unbowed by the excellent material already residing within the band’s back catalogue. This is everything a Swans fan could have hoped for: a sublime achievement.