Swans: An Introduction
Swans are an interesting band to say the least. Regardless of one’s opinion on their music it is almost impossible to deny that they have had some of the most interesting dynamic shifts in sound throughout their almost 40 year career. For those who haven’t heard of them allow me to give a brief outline of their sonic path.
Swans started out in 1982 in the New York underground performing with other acts at the time but most notably Sonic Youth. They were part of the dying New York No-Wave scene with other artists such as Glenn Branca, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and The Contortions. This genre focuses on very minimal stripped back punk that often experiments with dissonance and noise. Swans first few albums but most prominently Filth was born of this sound. This was basically caveman music. A few repeating notes, anti-authoritarian groaning and big loud drums.
This trend would pretty much continue for their next three albums up until 1987’s Children of God. Which added more interesting textures by playing with genres like Post-Punk, Industrial Rock and even Neofolk.
Another prominent feature of this album is the forefront use of band member Jarboe who added to the disturbing factor of the band. While Gira’s screaming is loud and scary, Jarboe took a more mature approach to fear by being unnerving and almost cultish. Take a listen to her singing on ‘In My Garden’. They would continue experimenting with their sound until 1996 when they decided to make a final opus and retire the project (at least until 2010). This final opus would be unlike any project they would ever make.
Unlike most of their albums where you can draw a clear gradual line of progression from one album to another, Soundtracks For the Blind was a whole different monster. Swans created a two and a half hour monster full of ambient drones, dramatic post-rock epics and even a drum and bass song, Soundtracks is unlike any other album mostly due to the unique way this album was crafted.
The band took old songs, field recordings, live recordings and any other material they could get their hands on to make one of the most intriguing and creative albums in rock history.
Swans: A Breakdown
I am going to take on the task of analyzing this behemoth of an album but in two separate posts. Which is perfect as this album is conveniently divided into The Silver and Copper Discs. This post will cover the Silver Disc (Tracks 1-12).
Lets Begin with the opening track ‘Red Velvet Corridor’. The album opens up with a drone piece. This track swells with a hopeful tone only to be plunged into darkness by a dissonant bass tone that covers the lower end of this track. Let’s look at the title of the album because Swans don’t just name things to name them.
“Soundtracks for the Blind”, what does that mean? Well the idea behind the album is that it is a soundtrack that never got made hence the word blind. So if we think of it that way we can think of this song as the opening credits. An introduction to a world similar to ours but something is off.
Swans use this to transition into the next track, the disturbing and frightening ‘I Was a Prisoner In Your Skull’ which like the first track opens with droning, however this song is interrupted by an unknown voice that seems to be mocking the listener.
This song quickly builds with guitars and drums until all music is cut to a tape recording. For the rest of this album it is important to know that Jarboe’s father worked for the FBI and the man speaking is a criminal that is being recorded on tape. The man on this tape is trying to convince the listener that they are insane (or in pure context of the tape the FBI Agent). This lets us know that the world of this album is not one of sunshine and rainbows but one of confusion and paranoia.
Swans: A Helpless Child
The third song ‘Helpless Child’ is one of the four centerpieces on this album (one of the two on this disc) at 15 minutes stands as the longest song on the album. This song is a post-rock epic. It builds slowly upon itself starting slow with gentle instrumentation and the entrance of Gira’s singing. He seems to be singing about his relationship with his mother (or possibly our main character’s view).
This Swans song is perhaps a comment on parenting from several perspectives. “You won’t let me breathe, you won’t let me go” is a statement on over-parenting, suffocating a child by never letting them grow as a person. Through this they become the person restricting them and may even pick up nasty habits like the heroin and alcoholism mentioned in the song.
After the lyrical lament Gira drops out of the song allowing this monstrous track to truly take form. The song takes it’s time adding one instrument at time building this cosmic layer that almost seems transcendent. Maybe this child has broken free and escaped this grasp or maybe they are just escaping one demon to go fight more.
Swans: Youth and Fame
‘Live Through Me’ is a transitional track. A rhythmic ambient drone opens up the song paired with acoustic guitar halfway through the track and almost makes the song sound like it’s taking us forward through time. Not too far through time however as I believe the next song is about youth. The song ‘Yum-Yab Killers’ is a live Swans recording sung by Jarboe and a literal interpretation of this song is…well its about eating babies. I think interpretation is close minded and that this song can be interpreted a bit more intellectually.
To me this song is about our character being shown the horrors of being young in the modern world. “You know what I’ll do, Well I’ll make you my mirror, Of the things that I chew.” Older people are trying to shape the youth into themselves because they don’t wanna be taken over. Or at least that’s my interpretation. (I can’t be the guy that likes the baby eating song)
The song ‘The Beautiful Days’ is simply breathtaking. A disturbing ambient drone song that starts with a low register drone heavily contrasted with a recording of Jarboe at two years old singing “Hi, it’s a sunny day a beautiful day”. Swans have always found a creative way to use Jarboe’s voice but using this sample just shows their technique and range.
Perhaps this song is the introduction of a new character, a female. This woman is born into this dark world with blissful optimism only to possibly grow into the darkness of the world at the end of the song. The end of this song features a voice sample of an interview with a phone sex operator talking about their job. Possibly this is a world where women have to sell their bodies in order to achieve success in life.
This theory would hold up with the next track ‘Volcano’ which completely sonically and tonally confuses you. This incredible song uses the sounds of 90’s electronic music and subverts you with deeply disturbing lyrics about a woman whose sexuality is taken advantage of in return for her success and happiness. I think the comparison to a movie here is apt as it reminds me of the chilling animated thriller Perfect Blue.
Swans: Hatred and Suffering
The song ‘Mellothumb’ takes us further into our characters psyche as this strange ambient track leads into ‘All Lined Up’ an eerie and hate-filled song filled with some of the most sickening lyrics on the album. This song is about hatred and revenge, Michael Gira writes “All Lined Up is naked hate/revenge diatribe, some of the most vile words I’ve ever wrote.”
While anger and hatred isn’t out of the ordinary for Swans but when Gira is saying it, you know it’s angry. Our character is angry or vengeful for some reason. It’s almost as if this album is taking the most volatile moments in life and simplifying them into raw emotional expression in the form of a journey.
The almost tribal ‘Surrogate 2’ moves us forward in time to an uncertain future and this future is shown in the next track ‘How They Suffer’. This song returns us to the parental side of this album as this song is a look into one of the most difficult points in life. The eventual fade of one’s parents. This chilling ambient track features two field recording samples. One is of Gira’s father talking about his blindness and the second is of Jarboe’s mother talking about her slow onset of dementia.
The last track on this disc is the 2nd centerpiece on the album, ‘Animus’. This is where the album’s hope starts to shine through. While dark and moody this almost apocalyptic post-rock track can seem harsh we as viewers of this supposed film can see it as a high point to close out this side. “Why can’t I hide inside your malleable electric face, You’d suck away the pain and swallow down my sickest dreams.” Our it character has found someone and it might be dark for them but finding someone to share your sorrow can help brighten you and uplift you.
We can also look at the title. Merriam-Webster defines animus as “a basic attitude or governing spirit” This works for our unnamed character as a point of inspiration and power. His life may seem bleak but he has the will to move on and take life by the reigns. And with this thought we close the Silver Disc of Soundtracks for the Blind.