[14 May 2014]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
Michael Gira was not making a mere semantic distinction when, following the announcements in 2010 that Swans would be coming out with a new album, he insisted that the group convened to make My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky would be a reconstitution, not a reunion. To those diehard fans of the innovative rock outfit that waited 14 years following 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind, Gira’s words were—and still are—appropriately sage. While there are characteristics of what might be called “Swans 1.0” that remain in “Swans 2.0”—namely punishing walls of sound, expansive track lengths, and grim subject matter—the music Gira and his band of volume torturers have been making since Rope to the Sky is of a class all its own.
Following the concise 44 minute runtime of Rope to the Sky, Swans decided to go full-hog, churning out two slabs of rock and roll at its most brutalizing: 2012’s The Seer and the recently released To Be Kind. At two hours each, these records provide listeners with a lot to be entertained by—but, like anything, there’s a price. When I spoke with Gira about To Be Kind, he confessed: “It requires an active devotion.”
That devotion, however, is only going to be tested from here on out as Swans continue to evolve. Part of Gira’s philosophy for Swans 2.0, implied by the use of “reconstitution” rather than “reunion”, is a strong rejection of looking backward. Though old Swans cuts like “Coward” and “Sex God Sex” cropped up in recent setlists, on the whole the band’s focus is on generating new music and new experiences. As Gira has noted in multiple interviews, he holds no regard for mining the past out of any desire to re-create mythical “good old days”. Accurate though it would be to say that the music of Swans is about the here and the now, the sense of elation and transcendence that the group aims at with their music is one where “here” and “now” become moot categories. The pummeling sonic experiments in the latest three Swans releases is all about the erasure of everything, with pure immersion into the music being the ultimate goal.
With that in mind, the ten songs listed below take on a certain immediacy. It is hard to imagine Gira deciding to use the Swans name to make a pop record, but his obsession with constantly pushing the band’s style in new directions indicates that the public might be subjected to a very different version Swans as the years go on. This list, then, represents the outstanding songs that exist within one brief period of time for this boundary-pushing collective. While Swans 2.0 is responsible for some of the most compelling rock music of recent years, their passion for always amping things up means that Swans 3.0 probably isn’t far off.
Though each member of Swans contributes something important to the group’s sound, the gang’s real ace in the hole is bass player Christopher Pravdica, who in playing the instrument that he does is tasked with a significant burden. Rhythm and groove are at the center of the music Swans 2.0 have been making on their past three LPs, which makes “She Loves Us!” an exemplar Swans cut. The song opens the second disc (or fourth LP, pending on your preference) of To Be Kind with an absolute gut-punch of a bassline. Pravdica sounds like he could lead an army in a triumphant battle march. Over the course of the 16 minutes that comprise this behemoth, the song ebbs and flows as only Swans can; which is to say, not so much “ebb and flow” as much as “gloriously rise” and “cacophonously fall”. Pravdica’s bass riff is joined by a vocal chant: “Now, now, now, now!” There again is a reminder that Swans is preoccupied with the present; the live version of “She Loves Us!” that appeared on the limited edition live collection Not Here/Not Now sounds substantially different. So too will it likely sound different on the upcoming Swans tour. But in the “now, now, now” of this studio version, “She Loves Us!” is a showcase of this band’s unrelenting power.
“Sexy” is not really a word that would (or should, for that matter) come to mind when describing Swans 2.0. Yet, oddly enough, it sure seems like Gira is trying for something close with “The Seer Returns”, the groovy follow-up to the gargantuan title tune of The Seer. Many were perplexed when “A Little God from My Hands”, the first single from To Be Kind, dropped on the Internet; they weren’t sure what to do with the Nile Rodgers-esque guitar, to say nothing of the general funkiness of it all. But “The Seer Returns” had already—to some extent—brought the funk, as much as Swans could conceivably do it. Atop disturbingly intoned geographical observations (“There’s a jagged deep crack in the crust of the earth / Spreading from north to south”), the main groove struts in an odd time signature, a much needed respite from the pervasive sound of “The Seer”.
The gospel-like “Reeling the Liars In” is undoubtedly the Swans 2.0 track that bears the most resemblance to Gira’s project from 1999-2009, Angels of Light. This song, like many by that folk outfit, is one where Gira’s vocals can likened to Johnny Cash, but in classic Swans fashion, the lyrics take on a wholly unique kind of macabre. “We are removing their face / We are collecting their skin / We are reeling the liars in”, Gira lists off, as the rest of the band hums behind him—a nice bit of dark humor. Gira’s foray into song-oriented material with Angels of Light has since been replaced by lengthy pieces (which Gira often distances from the label “song”) that eschew basic formats, and for that reason “Reeling the Liars In” is definitely a minor moment in the pantheon of Swans 2.0. But this ode to destroying all those who manipulate the truth is, in its own little way, just as powerful as the long tunes.
One might laugh when watching the live version of “Oxygen” performed at the 2013 Pitchfork Festival in Chicago. I certainly did. Seeing Gira dance around as Pravdica’s knees buckle by the weight of the song’s infectious bassline is not the kind of thing one is likely to see at most rock shows, even at one for a band like Swans. (For this song, Gira took off his trusty Gibson Lucille.) Yet that’s the kind of jam “Oxygen” is: written initially for Gira’s solo LP I Am Not Insane, it documents a particularly bad bout of asthma Gira suffered. The start-stop motion of the bass, when joined by the sharply strummed guitar chords, evokes the feeling of a body jerking back and forth, struggling for even the slightest gasp of air. “Oxygen” pays tribute to the necessity for air in a way that will leave you breathless.
As many picks on this list have indicated (and more will indicate), I am of the opinion that the strongest tracks by Swans 2.0 are those that do what the lengthier pieces do in a much more concise runtime. Though in a live setting pieces like “The Seer” are to be reckoned with, on the studio LPs such lengthy experiments are often exhausting, particularly since both The Seer and To Be Kind run at a time-consuming two hours apiece. That being said, there is something genuinely transcendent about a feat like “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture”. “The Seer” is a mighty beast in its own right, but “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” goes one step further, capturing the quasi-religious experience that Swans aim at in their live shows. The inner gatefold of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy comes to mind: as a group of voices chants “Sun! Sun!”, the music reaches its euphoric climax. Religion is a frequent talking point in the music of Swans, and this example explains why. The second half finds Gira screaming the name of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, along with political sayings like “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!” Though separated by some 200 years, a common theme does emerge between the two: liberation. “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” is the sound of not just a band but music itself becoming liberated from all expectations.
At one point, Gira expressed discontent in cutting down Rope to the Sky opener “No Words/No Thoughts” to its nine-and-a-half minute runtime. The live CD/DVD We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head attests that this song can more than fill 20 minutes, but to my ears the album version is fine on its own terms. As the song begins the sound of bells is heard, an ominous introduction to the cascading strums of guitar that make up the bulk of the track’s first half. In the second half things take to the pace of a gallop, with staccato bass notes setting in place a driving rhythm that is matched by Phil Puleo’s measured hits of the snare. After a tense buildup, the music gives out entirely, leaving only Gira’s voice, which delivers Rope to the Sky’s best lyrics: “Long may he live / Long may he live / Long may his children drift through the wind”. Then, a moment of sheer genius: “Long may his world never begin”. At that point, the music picks back up, even more aggressively than before, coming to a powerful conclusion as all the instruments halt on a loudly hit note. The irony is obvious, for with “No Words/No Thoughts” a whole new world began, and impressively at that.
Gira may have titled his 2010 solo release I Am Not Insane, but as The Seer’s opening tome “Lunacy” attests, there have got to be instances where he flirts with the darker side of sanity. This six-minute dark hymn climaxes with a haunting chant, in which Swans are joined by members of Low: “Lunacy! Lunacy! Lunacy!” This goes on for just long enough to cause discomfort, at which point the song recedes into a chilling coda: “Your childhood is over”, Gira announces, with a degree of nonchalance that sets an especially bleak stage for the remainder of The Seer. That 2012 double-disc opus was described by Gira as a culmination of all the music he had made for the previous 30 years. The urgency behind the dark chants of “Lunacy” makes it clear that The Seer is a serious affair of the first order. Echoes of “Lunacy!” still ring long after “The Apostate” closes out the exhausting hour and a half that preceded it.
“Jim” began as a demo played by Gira on acoustic guitar, as part of the I Am Not Insane release. Better than any of the Gira solo demos that later become full-blooded Swans tunes, “Jim” is demonstrative of how a single germ of a groove played on one instrument can be given life in a band setting, particularly with a band with as strong a rapport as Swans. Pravdica, as he often is, takes front and center, with his catchy bass groove serving as the song’s driving engine. Puleo and jack-of-all-trades percussionist Thor Harris provide an appropriately understated, jazzy rhythmic background, which grows in intensity as the song reaches is tumultuous midpoint. “Let’s string up the man / At the top of the stairs”, Gira suggests menacingly, “Let’s piss on the sea / That’s burning down there!” It’s never made clear who Jim is, but as Gira describes him, he comes off as a sort of bizarre, mythopoetic figure: “Ride your beautiful bitch / To the ultimate sin!” Gira commands. At six minutes and 46 seconds, “Jim” is as close as Swans 2.0 will get to writing something able to fit in the confines of a radio single, but this punches with just as much weight as their lengthier compositions.
Unlike the majority of the epics that have come to define Swans 2.0, “A Piece of the Sky” doesn’t quite organically flow from section to section. It sounds quite obviously like several different ideas for a song merged into one kaleidoscopic, 19-minute epic. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s any less effective for doing so. In fact, in its collage of sounds that span electric, acoustic, and organic, it becomes one of the most interesting experiments Swans has ever crafted. Starting off with the crackling of a large fire (which, as The Seer’s liner notes point out, are real), the piece then segues into a slightly off-key choral passage. What follows this is one of the most beautiful things Swans has ever put to tape: a three-minute passage of chimes and bells weaving in and out of each other, forming a dazzling latticework of notes. That section abruptly ends, after which the band plays a catchy instrumental passage that sounds startlingly like post-rock. As if all of this weren’t breathtaking enough, “A Piece of the Sky” concludes with a four-minute section that Gira calls “a hymn to our creator”. With vague yet entrancing lyrics like “There’s some wires we can’t unwind / Around the ankles of the blind”, Gira rounds out this mélange of an epic in a way that can, oddly enough, only be described as charming.
“Screenshot” takes the title for being the most aptly named song of the music Swans 2.0 has been making up to this point. Gira often utilizes the word “cinematic” in describing the group’s music, which makes it fitting to say that “Screenshot” really is a single shot take on what it is that makes Swans so compelling. An ominous, slithering bassline begins it all, with the remaining instruments joining in methodically, one after another, building a marvelous tension that is enhanced by Gira’s ritualistic singing: “No pain, no death, no suffering”. The emphasis on the word “No” throughout the song—something the limited edition cover to Rope to the Sky hinted at—gives the feeling that Swans are aiming for a kind of musical nirvana, where nothing but sound exists. Even though Gira at one point says “No time”, “Screenshot’s” superlative climax find him shouting “Here! Now!” The defining trait of Swans 2.0 is an emphasis on those two very things, which indicates that time itself might be a paradox for the group. Here and now are the goals, but so too is the obliteration of those concepts. In wrestling that perplexing contradiction with its unrelenting rhythm, “Screenshot” represents the strongest material that Swans have put out in their reconstitution.