- © Lee Ranaldo
Swans (//) is an American experimental rock band originally active from 1982 to 1997, led by singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira. The band was one of the few groups to emerge from the early 1980s New York no wave scene and stay intact into the next decade. Formed by Gira in 1982, Swans employed a shifting lineup of musicians until their dissolution in 1997. Besides Gira, the only other constant members were keyboardist/vocalist/songwriter Jarboe from 1984 to 1997, and semi-constant guitarist Norman Westberg. The band became known for its experimental instrumentation and repetitive song structures. In 2010, Gira reformed Swans without Jarboe.
Gira always states he took the moniker Swans as it described the sound he wanted best. Gira's summation of the name follows along the lines of: "Swans are majestic, beautiful looking creatures. With really ugly temperaments."
The earliest known lineup of Swans comprised Gira on bass guitar and vocals, Jonathan Kane on drums, Sue Hanel on guitar, Mojo on percussion and tape loops and either Thurston Moore, Dan Braun or Jon Tessler on the second bass guitar. Jon Tessler also played percussion and tape loops. 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."
Hanel did not stay long in the group, and by the time of their recording debut she had been replaced by Bob Pezzola.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, who had previously played with Kane as the avant-garde duo Transmission. 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-punk outfits as Joy Division. However, the minimal chord structures owe more to blues, while the jazz instrumentation and awkward time signatures are evidence of Swans' roots in the no wave scene of the late 1970s, which had more or less collapsed by the release of 1984's Cop.
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 guitar noise, and pounding drums, punctuated by Gira's morbid and violent lyrics (inspired by Jean Genet and Marquis de Sade), usually barked or shouted. Critics have described Swans' early recordings as "aggressive beyond words".
Their first full-length release, Filth (1983), featured driving, choppy rhythms and abrasive drums. The whole is reminiscent of earlier no wave bands, such as Mars, and the work of Swans' contemporaries, like Sonic Youth's Confusion Is Sex and Kill Yr Idols; but critic Ned Raggett contends that "early Swans really is like little else on the planet before or since". Filth was the first album to feature guitarist Norman Westberg, who would play a vital role in much of Swans' music and would feature on every subsequent studio album apart from 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. Young God has been known by several names, usually by one of its two A-sides, such as "I Crawled" or, notoriously, 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 music played in extreme slow motion. Swans were, in this era, Gira on vocals, Westberg on guitar, Harry Crosby on bass guitar and Roli Mosimann on 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 releases for this reason.
Justin Broadrick shared this impression of the group:
One of the trademarks of Swans' early period was playing at painfully loud volumes during concerts, often leading to police stopping shows. Gira was also notably confrontational with the audience, such as stepping on people's fingers resting on the stage, pulling people's hair and, notably, physically assaulting anyone caught in the crowd headbanging; something Gira detested. This lent a reputation to the name Swans which was one of the contributing factors in Gira's retirement of the band in 1997.
Since Swans' reformation, Gira has made a point of maintaining the intensity of their live show, stating that it is at once "soul-uplifting and body-destroying". He has also sometimes turned off the air conditioning before Swans performed and compared the experience to a Native American sweat lodge.
1986's Greed saw a new addition to the group with vocalist/keyboardist Jarboe joining the band. Her presence began a slow thawing in the overt brutality and energy of Swans' early work.
Greed also marked the introduction of bassist Algis Kizys as 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 Jarboe on lead vocals. Holy Money was also the first album by Swans to incorporate acoustic elements, in particular, the eight-minute dirge "Another You", which starts with a bluesy harmonica introduction. 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.
Some songs, such as "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. In between the two poles, there are pieces like "Sex, God, Sex" (heavy metal-like bass riffs with blues and gospel-inspired singing), "Blood and Honey" (a murder ballad with early post-rock tendencies) 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.
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 increasingly emphasizing Jarboe as 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 US). 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 are 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 Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart", which was released as a single in 1988 on Product Inc. in a confusing array of 7- and 12-inch formats. Both Gira and Jarboe sang 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. However their version of the song was a hit on US college radio in 1988, which led to the group being offered a major label deal at Uni/MCA. "I'd worked so hard all my life", said Gira. "At 15, I was digging ditches in the desert in Israel, and I put myself through college painting houses. I never saw any money from any of our records. So by the time I finally got that carrot dangled in front of me, it was like, 'at last, I can make a living at what I love to do.'"
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 Laswell and expanded the acoustic palette introduced on Greed and Children of God. For this album, the core line-up of Michael Gira, Jarboe and 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 music elements. 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. The album reportedly sold 5000 copies in the UK, one of the lowest numbers in the history of MCA Records, and was soon deleted from MCA's catalogue.
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 Faith hit "Can't Find My Way Home", one of two singles from the LP.
In 1990, Gira and Jarboe released the third and final World of Skin album, Ten Songs from Another World. It was less successful than the previous two Skin albums.
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, blues and 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 Bisi in 1992), 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.
With other projects occupying his time, Gira decided to end 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 ambient soundscapes, post-industrial epics, post rock suites and acoustic guitar. It is 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, Gira revealed that there is more live material that may be released in the future. He described these unreleased recordings as "fairly spectacular".
After dissolving Swans, Gira formed Angels of Light, continued his work with Young God Records and Jarboe continued her solo work.
In January, 2010, Swans' reformation was heralded with a new song posted on the Young God Records' MySpace, and officially confirmed by a post on the Young God Records Facebook and MySpace accounts. Gira decided to bring back Swans during an Angels of Light show five years ago. He stated that in the middle of playing a song onstage with "large chords that were very sustained and swaying, in this sort of slave-ship rhythm," he felt "a nascent urge right then to re-form or reinvigorate Swans because I remembered how elevating and intense that experience was." To help raise money for the upcoming new Swans album, Gira released a new solo album, I Am Not Insane, via his Young God Records website. LAS Magazine posted an article entitled "Kickstart My Art" on alternative financing in "a cash-strapped music industry, unable to rely on record label financing, is positioning its own quid pro quo: fan dollars to fund projects in exchange for exclusive material and a sense of involvement" that cites Swans selling out of the 1,000 signed and numbered copies of I Am Not Insane as an example of reverse financing where proceeds from one project are rolled over to finance the next.
Swans then went on a series of U.S. and European tour dates, and headlined the Supersonic Festival in Birmingham, England in October 2010. The first post-reformation Swans album, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, was released on September 23, 2010, and the band simultaneously embarked on an eighteen-month world tour. The band were chosen by Portishead to perform at the All Tomorrow's Parties I'll Be Your Mirror festivals that Portishead curated in July 2011 at London's Alexandra Palace, and, in September 2011, in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
In 2012 Swans released the live album We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head, featuring material culled from their 2010–2011 tour, in support of production and recording costs for their forthcoming record, The Seer. Initially released as a limited handmade edition of 1000 copies, We Rose... was re-released in May 2012 as a deluxe digipak.
On July 15, 2013, Gira announced a new, handmade live album in the vein of I Am Not Insane and We Rose..., titled Not Here / Not Now. The album announced for sale on October 14, with the proceeds helping to fund the recording of the new Swans studio album with John Congleton, announced in 2014 as To Be Kind.
In 2014 the band announced that it signed with Mute Records for the world outside North America and that the band would be touring.
In 2014 both The Seer as well as To Be Kind were ranked on Pitchfork Media's "Top 100 Albums of the Decade So Far 2010-2014." The Seer was ranked 17 and To Be Kind was ranked 85.
The band announced on April 24, 2015 that they will be recording their fourteenth studio album in September 2015.
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