Cacophonous and anarchic, imbued with an insular irony, and inspired equally by punk primitivism and Krautrock experimentalism, the Swell Maps pioneered a hyperintelligent yet unforgivingly amateurish approach to music-making that sounds now like a blueprint for all the aspiring art-school noisemakers that came in their wake. Never popular, always marginal, the band seemed to have operated with a sublime indifference to any potential audience they might have had, which makes them a contrarian’s dream, the perfect band to listen to in order to indulge one’s masochism and sullen anti-social tendencies at the same time, all without surrendering the cachet attached to being into something obscure that’s not overtly silly. Because their records have been relatively hard to track down, the band acquired a path-breaking reputation perhaps out of proportion to their actual accomplishments, but now that they’ve been reissued by Secretly Canadian (each with a few bonus tracks and video material tacked on, but neither with the integral singles “Read About Seymour” and “Let’s Build a Car”), you’ll be able to evaluate their bastard punk prog for yourself.
Comprised of two brothers (Nikki Sudden, who would have a long post-Maps career as a Johnny Thunders impersonator, and Epic Soundtracks, who later drummed for the goth stalwarts, Crime and the City Solution) and some of their neighborhood friends (one of whom, Jowe Head, would later join the Television Personalities) from Solihull, England, the band’s roots go back to childhood, and their two albums can sometimes sound like the proceedings of a peculiar private club, operating from an unannounced agenda that can hardly be guessed at. Thankfully, the liner notes accompanying the reissues, which feature song-by-song annotation by the band members themselves, shine some light in the clubhouse and afford context useful for appreciating the band’s often difficult exercises in sonic subversion.
Released in 1979, the band’s first full-length album, A Trip to Marineville is the slightly more accessible of the two, but not because it has all that many hooks or melodies or anything like that. Swell Maps approach to songwriting involves pounding out a riff or chord progression over and over again—on chunky, thickly distorted guitars or on a piano—while unexpected noises and abstruse, sullenly intoned vocals are layered on top. Borrowing much from the loosely structured jams of Can, this strategy would ultimately be adopted by bands like Flipper and the Germs. Impenetrable at first, songs quickly grow on you, if only through their sheer repetition, their relentless momentum.
On the cover is a photo of a house on fire, very appropriate to how the album opens, with well-orchestrated burst of three short, explosive tracks that run together seamlessly: the sneering “H.S. Art”, which repeatedly asks “Do you believe in art?” with such scorn that it’s clear you don’t if you have to stop and ask; the metacritique of “Another Song”, which seems to question its own right to exist as it co-opts pop-song formula, and the concise, incisive “Vertical Slum”. The rest of the album eschews such tight focus, and progressively becomes more difficult listening. Songs that begin with crisp, throbbing riffs and well-layered guitars—“Midget Submarines” and “Harmony in Your Bathroom”—have endings that stretch out and devolve into chaos. And the instrumentals mount up as well, starting with the innocuous piano and found noise fragment “Don’t Throw Ashtrays at Me!” and moving through the drifting, meditative “Gunboats” and climaxing with “Adventures into Basketry”, a spontaneous eight-minute noise fest that sounds like a spastic drum circle conducted during an air raid. This discursive experiments in discord certainly sound liberating for the band, but if you can’t get lost in the accidental textures of random noises colliding and patterns disintegrating, if you can’t get off vicariously on their freedom, you’ll probably grow impatient with it all. More successful is “Full Moon in My Pocket” and “Blam!!” which are really one song, an extended homage to the quintessential Can epic, “Mother Sky”. Using staccato bass notes to punctuate a fluid groove and elliptical lyrics to invite abstruse speculation, these songs are perhaps the closest Swell Maps comes to achieving an effective synthesis of deliberate artistry and open-endedness, suggesting for a few sublime moments that these are natural complements to each other.
Such moments of crystallized spontaneity are rare on the morose and oppressive Jane from Occupied Europe, much of which sounds like it was recorded in the same bleak echo chamber as Public Image, Ltd.‘s Metal Box. But Metal Box coheres as a thorough renunciation of punk and a total rejection of denatured “New Wave”, capturing brilliantly the paranoid loneliness that haunts what passes for modern dance music and showing how leisure has become the most alienating feature of contemporary life. Jane from Occupied Europe has no such coherence; instead it’s composed of many turgid instrumentals whose exhausted lack of structure suggests not spontaneity but an inspiration deficit. “Robot Machines” is a dud drum machine track and fizz and the aptly named “Big Empty Field” is some random harmonics and machine shop noises over an intricate but wearisome rhythm. “Collision with a Frogman” and “. . . Vs. the Mangrove Delta Plan” are consecutive sound-alikes that meander in search of melody without ever settling for one.
All the best songs on Jane from Occupied Europe come at the end: “Secret Island”, “Whatever Happens Next . . .” and “Blenheim Shots” pick up from where Wire left off with 154 and give some sense of what that band might have sounded like if they didn’t immediately start sucking after the release of that masterwork. Adopting obscure topics from military history into blearily intoned lyrics, and melding them with menacing drones, explosive drumming and organ hooks out of nowhere, these represent the Swell Maps finest work; but it’s emblematic that these are buried at the end of an album, preceded by so many unlistenable instrumentals. Either the Swell Maps were a band that sought to demand an indulgent patience from listeners, making them earn whatever pleasure the band could offer, or they were a band that had absolutely no sense of when they were at their best, and didn’t care to think about it all that much. Either way, calibrating the frustration to satisfaction ratio is ultimately the essence of the Swell Maps appeal, and if you can’t understand what role frustration could possibly play in enjoying music, steer clear of these records.