Though these early '90s records have a bright transcendence that makes them feel like outliers, they fit perfectly into the Swans canon.
Since Michael Gira reassembled Swans five years ago, much of the discussion around the band's three excellent records that followed circled around notions of darkness and punishment. The extended droning spaces of The Seer or the more rhythmic expansions on To Be Kind were talked about like apocalyptic things, sounds capable of tearing things down, of melting borders. There was a sense, in other words, of destruction. This reading of the records has its place -- these two and their predecessor My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky are not afraid of the dark -- but the language also seems to be carry over from the critical discussion of earlier Swans work, especially their earliest, most industrial sounding records.
But now that Gira is readying the last album for this version of Swans, and as we just revisited the first Swans record, 1983's Filth, on a reissue earlier this year, it seems like the perfect time to look back on White Light From the Mouth of Infinity and Love of Life, two early '90s Swans records that remind us that to only cover the primal and the punishing is to limit the discussion of a band that always seems so steadfast in its intentions, and yet on revisiting its discography you can see just how much it evolved and varied over time.
White Light from the Mouth of Infinity and Love of Life were initially released in 1991 and 1992, respectively, and though there are plenty of players here, the records focus around Michael Gira and Jarboe. They follow the one Swans major-label album, 1989's The Burning World, an album that may have its shortcomings, but with failings that have long been oversold, by Gira and critics alike. But to hear these two records is to realize that, no matter the horrible experience Gira had making The Burning World, he is every bit as focused and on fire on these records.
White Light from the Mouth of Infinity is, in one way, aligned with a lot of Swans records. It's a deliberately paced, deeply textured record that runs over an hour. The percussion here (and on Love of Life too) gives the music a lot of its gravitas, but the textures around it don't dwell in the dark so much as they reach for the light. Gira may deadpan, "I'm so glad I'm better than you", on the album's opener, but keyboards soar and the guitars hum and those drums sound less like a death march and more like an army of some god or another. In other words, there's something triumphant, even transcendental about it. No wonder Gira claims he can "see through this veil of reality", because this music pushed right past that seemingly thin veneer.
The rapturous nature of the record allows for Swans to tap into new sounds. You get the sweeping, spaghetti western style of "Power and Sacrifice", the Cohen-esque folk of "Love Will Save You", the slow building, fragile spaces of "Miracle of Love", and the achingly beautiful echoes of "When She Breathes". If recent Swans records reach out, White Light From the Mouth of Infinity reaches up, and achieves towering heights. It also represents some of the best back and forth between Gira and Jarboe on record. Always great foils for one another, Gira and Jarboe sound as tuned in as ever here, so that Jarboe's ethereal vocals on "When She Breaths" sound like beautiful, necessary northern pole to Gira's chilling bellow on "Why Are We Alive". With Jarboe and Gira both at the height of their powers, and the layers of sound swelling at every turn, this album sounds downright cinematic. But, for all its light, it doesn't ignore the shadows Gira always seems to write from. But it's not about the dark itself, or the light really, but the symbiotic relationship between the two. They need each other to define one another, to exist, and these songs can mine the dark while still basking in the glow of that titular light.
Love of Life condenses and fractures the structures from its predecessor. The album is constantly cut up by nameless interstitial tracks. Some are just the distant clanging of percussion, while others meld lilting guitar with spoken-word recordings. In these moments, the album drifts away from itself, only to bring us right back to earth with the rumbling drums and rolling guitar of "The Other Side of the World" or the heartbreaking quiet of "Her". The album expands in similar ways, but a shift from airy keyboards to more rooted piano sounds leans out the proceedings a bit. The shift gives "In the Eyes of Nature" a tense edge and infuses "God Loves America" with a pang of melancholia. Love of Life is made of starker, more deliberate shifts between sonic landscapes, but showing its seams actually reinforces the structure rather than breaking it down. White Light From the Mouth of Infinity, like some other Swans records, pulls at a moment. It feels like a tone poem, one looking to uncover every secret from a set space. In contrast, Love of Life is more propulsive, moving jaggedly yet effortlessly from the shimmering guitar tones of the title track to the spare acoustic guitar of "No Cure for the Lonely", and hitting on several fruitful musical tangents in between.
The records represent a remarkable success in the first run of Swans, and a unique moment in the sound. 1996's The Great Annihilator would continue the experiments with space and texture, but there's an industrial edge that hints back at earlier work, while its follow-up Soundtracks for the Blind is a catch-all farewell. Like now, Swans sounded focused on these two records, diving into an aesthetic and mining it for all its worth. The reissue includes several bonus tracks from this era, and while some are previously available and there may be no true revelations, they fill out a sense of the band's vision for its sound as they made these records (and, to some extent, The Burning World). They do also provide some excellent moments, especially a version of the Jarboe-lef "Mother's Milk", a wonderfully ragged live take on Love of Life's "Amnesia", and the howling epic "The Unknown".
But the bonus tracks play second fiddle to these two great, even essential records. The beauty of Swans is how complicated their legacy gets with each new release, while still creating these through lines of thought and aesthetic. White Light From the Mouth of Infinity and Love of Life aren't opposite the deeper rumblings of other records, the ones we describe by their darkness. Instead, these transcendent records are shaped by their shadowy counterparts, and vice versa. Though they may seem, on their own, like outliers, these records fit perfectly into the Swans canon, and -- with their sense of texture and deliberate pacing clashing with hairpin shifts -- should be seen as fundamental to the band's development. These records cut through that veil of reality, but they don't do so to point out how flimsy it is. Instead, they do it to provide with something better, something more.