Monolithic. Austere. Stentorian. Nullifying. If it's one thing Swans were entirely gifted at, it was garnering epic adjectives. Their music was alternately brutal, vast, engulfing, unrelenting, elegiac, sweeping, merciless and utterly unique. Lots of artists cite Swans as an influence and do their best to emulate them, but Swans themselves sounded like no one else, which was quite by design. They rose from the same fertile ground as acts like Sonic Youth, Rat At Rat R and Pussy Galore, but owed precious little to any of those bands or their ensuing scenes. Swans stood alone, which is precisely how they wanted it.
I was late to the table with Swans. Incidentally, Swans were one of those bands -- acts like Bad Brains, Creatures, Buzzcocks, Cranes. You want to throw a The in front of their name, only to be snootily informed by some insufferable hepcat knowitall that there is no applicable definite article. In my day, I've loved a lot of bands that insist on doing this, but it doesn't endear me to them. In any case, Swans were simply Swans. There was no "The." Why they even referred to themselves as Swans is a mystery to me, but I've always assumed it had something to do with the reputation of the stately water fowl in question. They are renowned for their striking grace and beauty, but they're ultimately nasty creatures who'd happily peck your eye out should you rouse their ire. It's certainly a fitting parallel to the band's ethos.
The brain child of one Michael Gira, Swans started out in 1982 as a very rude bit of business indeed. Informed and inspired by the pointedly finesse-free caterwaul of the short-lived New York 'No Wave' scene, Gira formed Swans to showcase a preoccupation with self-loathing, degradation and pain, set to a frighteningly brutal score of plodding, pounding and pummeling noise. At the time, Swans' music was not so much to be enjoyed as endured. Legend has it that at live shows, the band played at volumes so intensely loud that members of the audience were reported to actually vomit. I don't know if that's true, but I hope it is. The B-52's they were not. If that sounds like your idea of a good time, a fine sampling of the live Swans experience is best captured on the provocatively titled disc, Public Castration Is A Good Idea.
Over time, Swans evolved from such deliberately inaccessible extremes to a vaguely more user-friendly incarnation, largely due to the addition of female vocalist, Jarboe to the band's otherwise ever-shifting ranks. Morphing from unwieldy noise-rock into a sort've industrial phase (marked by a utilization of impossibly weighty, clangy percussion), Swans' music never stayed in one category comfortably or for too long. By the time I came to know their music in the early 90's, they were crafting glacial, cinematic soundscapes that were as melodic as they were powerful. I'd picked up a few of their records along the way, specifically White Light From The Mouth of Infinity and Love of Life and worked my way backwards into the harrowing murk.
Expansive, layered and dense with texture, Swans' music just sounded so massive, held together by Gira's signature basso profundo. A friend of mine named Steve had started to roadie for the band sometime in the early 90s, so I ended up seeing them at the Limelight in April of 1992. I still vividly remember Swans assuming the stage to an ironically bubbly Sinatra tune after an opening set by a long-since-vanished 'industrial' pop band called The Machines of Loving Grace. "Turn that fucking thing off," boomed an ominously silhouetted Gira in regards to the dry ice machine that was needlessly filling the stage with mist. Swans were not about stage effects or light shows or pyrotechnics or cat-juggling. They were simply about the sound, and watching the band produce that sound was compelling enough. Just witnessing bassist Algis Kizys -- a beefy, hirsute gent I later described in my live review for New York Perspecives as "half Samurai Warrior/half Wookie" -- beat the daylights out off his instrument was awe-inspiring. Not happy to simply pluck, pick or slap his four strings, Kizys would lurch violently with each pendulous beat, packing his entire body weight into every concussive note. It was exhausting enough to watch, let alone feel reverberating through your rib-cage. I can't imagine how he kept it up.
In any case, this song -- "The Great Annihilator" -- is the title track from one of Swans' final albums. Michael Gira became continually frustrated at both the band's lack of success and the burden of expectation which came saddled with the band's name. By the end of their fifteen year career, Swans were making music that was indescribably different from the music they'd started off making, but people were still expecting to hear brain-splattering post-no wave sonic warfare from them. Gira retired Swans in 1997 and continues his musical trajectory with Angels of Light. While not as dark and thunderous as Swans, Angels of Light retain Gira's unique sensibility.
This track, meanwhile, is one of my absolute favorites of theirs. After a slow-building hum, the song bursts open like a shattered sheet of glass, revealing layer upon layer of spiraling instrumentation, Kizys' juggernaut bass, Jarboe's harmonies and Gira's booming, other-wordly vocals. The perfect fusion of their explosive wallop and spectral elegance, "The Great Annihilator" is purportedly about the ultimate black hole. To quote Gira himself, it's "a postulation offered by a physicist describing the inward and outward movement of matter and time through space and to me being uneducated and essentially uninformed about science, I took it as a metaphor for breathing." Again, Kanye West this ain't.
I love playing "The Great Annihilator" on the ol' iPod when I'm moving through dense Manhattan crowds. Something about the ponderous, sprawling drone of the track makes me adopt a weary, disdainful sneer as I sift through the babbling human cattle. That the band was able to capture such a titanic sound continues to astound me.
I was speaking with a fellow music-head friend recently about how my recent job search was starting to depress me, and in an attempt to change the subject, I asked him what music he'd been getting into lately. When he asked me the same thing, I mentioned that I'd been re-discovering Swans lately. "Swans?" he joked, " you really MUST be depressed!" While Swans may not exactly fall under the category of "cheerful," I really don't find them to be a downer. The crushing oomph of their music is pure, unfettered catharsis. Listen for yourselves.
To try to sum up the entirety of Swans' sound, catalog and history is an impossible feat. If you're interested, I strongly recommend checking out their official website, as well as their MySpace page.