Swans Albums From Worst To Best
It started in the sewer. Ugliness embodied. Noise like you’d never heard. The bellowing drawl of an unhinged slave driver, spitting abuse and mantras of degradation.
“Nobody beats you like a cop, with his club.”
“Someone weaker than you should rape you.”
Lyrics sailed past pitch-black into some deeper, darker void of nastiness. The music was supposed to hurt. This was NYC in the early ’80s. This was Swans.
In its earliest incarnation, Swans set out to inflict itself upon the listener –- violation and domination set to post-punk sludge, meant to break you down, bend you over, and tear right through. Mastermind and sole constant Michael Gira drew on the writings of Jean Genet and the Marquis de Sade to sculpt his repetitious tirades, while an ever-shifting live band channeled the urban blight of no-wave and industrial into something much worse. The early records remain some of the most unapologetic, uncompromising sounds ever recorded.
What set Swans apart from their peers — bands like Mars, DNA, even a nascent Sonic Youth (Thurston supposedly spent time in Swans before anything was recorded) — was a sense of larger purpose. When grueling noise exhausted itself as a means of making a point, they’d simply change approach –- even when it meant clawing toward the light. Looking back on the band’s origins in a 1995 interview, Gira reflected: “The whole idea of being a noise band at this point is the most conformist, conservative, consumerist, brain-dead route you could take. I think it would be more adventurous to sing at a Holiday Inn.” Confrontation is where you find it.
With the addition of Jarboe on vocals and keys –- she was the only other constant from ’84-’97 –- structures began to shift, songs coalesced into singable, hummable things, and Swans burst outward in a cruel bloom of contradictory sounds. The first transitional records saw the original stew of post-punk and sludge retrofitted to stuttering industrial beats while softer, piano tracks started to appear. Before long, each passing record took on a new persona, and each shift saw the band’s vision grow exponentially in texture and scope. Gira’s obsessions — power, religion, sex, death — remained constant, but his impressionistic, shouted rants found new strength when he adopted a baritone croon and learned to tell stories, softening his attack to serve a higher calling.
After the mild success of Children Of God in ’87, Swans leapt to a major label for The Burning World. That record sold so poorly they were dropped almost immediately, casting them back to the threadbare comfort of the underground that offered them artistic freedom if nothing else. Throughout it all, Gira’s force of will and Jarboe’s plaintive moan held the act together; a tenuous balance not unlike mellower compatriots Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerard of Dead Can Dance, just a lot less pretty. Swans’ path was not without potholes: an infamous cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” jumps out as one of the worst things they ever did, and Gira has more or less disowned an entire chunk of his back catalog. But even the missteps offer substance greater than most bands could imagine. Luckily the bulk of the catalog is a string of masterpieces, one after another.
Gira dissolved the band in 1997. His growing interest in folk and Americana gave birth to a gentler band, Angels Of Light, while Jarboe shifted focus to solo projects and collaborations with Swans-inspired acts like Neurosis and Justin Broadrick (Godflesh/Jesu). Swans was never much of a money-making venture in its day, but the cult of fans grew substantially over the years. In 2010, Gira shook out the dust and revived the name for a reunion album. Just two months ago, Swans released a massive, double-disc follow-up titled The Seer. Musically and artistically, they’re as strong as ever, with brimstone and ecstatic energy to spare. After struggling through the trenches of obscurity for decades, they’ve finally arrived to the public: For the first time they’re selling out shows and cracking the Billboard charts.
Swans’ catalog is daunting, with no obvious entry point. The early stuff is caustic. The middle stuff is largely out of print, existing instead inside excellent but incomplete compilations. Every incarnation of the band presents something brilliant, but something different: Each record is worthy of your time, even the worst of them. So let’s explore the Swans discography*, in ascending order, from worst to best.
*Since these records have been reissued and restructured so heavily over the years, this list is based on the studio albums as they were originally released, not the reissues, which sometimes shifted sequences to combine multiple albums, or left off tracks altogether. Seen as a whole, the Swans catalog is a clusterfuck; for logistical purposes I’m not including any of the countless EPs, compilations, or live albums, though most are worth tracking down (especially Swans Are Dead).
11. Filth (1983)
Talk about a perfect title. This was the debut that saw Swans destroy everything else crawling out of the no-wave scene at the time. With two drummers on board, Filth is driven by almost danceable rhythms with a thick coat of grating noise. It's intentionally hard on the ears. All the early Swans material sounds like a clear product of its urban environment, like the industrial thrum of a sweatshop in an underlit back alley. Every song operates in the same mode: brutal skronk, Gira's shouts, and huge percussion ad nauseam. Lyrics are barked and repeated. Several songs end abruptly, like the tape was simply cut. Repeated listens reveal a band in full control of the clamor they're creating, but these aren't songs as much as a pure expression of artistic intent. They'd take this sound further over the next few years, but Filth stands as a testament to the power Swans have had since day one.
10. My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky (2010)
When Swans broke up in 1997, Gira immediately threw his energy into another project: the quieter, more explicitly folk Angels Of Light. After six good-to-brilliant albums with the Angels (including the untouchable How I Loved You), Gira decided to resurrect the Swans moniker to return to darker, heavier music once again. Which is sort of what he does here, but not quite. This record's single biggest failing is that it sounds a lot more like Angels than Swans, with its heavy reliance on Appalachian folk instruments and not-big drumming. It's a great record, but it doesn't quite scratch that Swans itch. More than anything tangible, it's a difference in texture -- Gira affects the same exaggerated drawl he used exclusively with Angels (which would vanish on the most recent album, go figure), and the rhythm section just sounds subdued. Jarboe, ever the foil to Gira's booming ruminations, is noticeably absent. Luckily, Angels were a hell of a band in their own right. With the help of a mixed crew of Angels and Swans bandmates, every song here comes out a winner in its own right, with a few of the rowdiest moments approaching the stomp of days past.
9. Cop (1984)
Picking up where Filth left off, Cop took the original formula to its most horrific conclusion. This is the nastiest Swans would get -- few bands would ever reach these depths. Gone is the second drummer, and with him the rhythmic thrust -- which means there's nothing to cling to when shit gets bad. And every second of this record is bad, if not horrible. Guitars are tortured through a sequence of chromatic non-riffs; feedback fills in the space like a web of tattered bandages. With slower tempos than before, weariness pervades the whole album -- it's the absolute absence of hope. Embodying the themes of the record -- oppression, pain, and degradation -- Gira sounds defeated by his own songs as he croaks out lines like "I know my place. I hide my stink. I need you more than I hate myself." Despite an obvious influence on later bands like Godflesh and Neurosis, there's really nothing else like Cop.
8. Love Of Life (1992)
The early '90s saw Swans on an interesting path. Still in the melodic mold of Burning World, Love Of Life starts out propulsive and energetic, laced with gorgeous details courtesy of acoustic guitars, banjos, and dulcimer -- but the songs were bracing enough to stand your hair on end. The title sums up the tone as the record begins, though things skid into darker territory in its second half. Samples are integrated between (and occasionally into) songs, setting the stage for deeper experimentation on later albums. Falling somewhere between apocalyptic folk and psychedelic rock, few outside references really capture the feel of what Swans were doing at this point. The most striking song on the record (and one of their best ever) captures everything Swans would ever do into one crystalline, crushing suite: "Her" starts with an acoustic throb and a gentle lyric about love (Gira singing to Jarboe, presumably) before hitting a wordless chorus -- the pendulum swings, guitars crash, and the full band stomps through hell before dropping out to play a perfect sample for nearly two minutes. The clip is all hopes and dreams: an interview with a teenage girl gushing about her troubled musician friend and crush, a young man named Charlie. It's beautiful, exhilarating, and uncomfortable to listen to.
7. Greed (1986)
And then Jarboe happened. Joining shortly after Cop, the addition of a powerful female presence marked an immediate and powerful shift, and an altogether new dichotomy for Swans -- Gira's desperate brutality found a counterpoint in Jarboe's classically trained voice. With her came a slow softening of sound, as faint melody and outside instruments crept into the fold. Here she mainly contributes wailing backing vocals, but the path of Swans to come was clear. Greed and Holy Money are essentially twin albums, both being recorded in the same sessions and released within the same year. Most folks will have never heard them in their original form -- the reissue unceremoniously mixes tracks from both albums at random (as well as concurrent singles), and that's all you could get for over 20 years. It's easy to view the whole period as a collective work since it all sounds so immediately different from what came before. Gone is the squalor of Filth and Cop, replaced with a more refined horror -- easier to stomach, but no less terrible. Pounding, echoing percussion, grand piano, occasional synthesizers, and the odd programmed drumbeat push the songs closer to industrial than ever before -- and yes, for the first time these things actually sounded like songs. After the unfiltered Filth of the early years, the sudden sophistication was an immediate shock.
6. Holy Money (1986)
As mentioned above, Holy Money is the back half of the sessions that produced Greed, though each album has its own character. For the first time we get a taste of the gothic-gospel (goth-pel?) vibe that would infect the next album, Children Of God, on a much deeper level -- Jarboe summons the choir while Gira intones a dead-eyed sermon -- and it's weird, stirring stuff. Jarboe's presence here is much more pronounced -- her breathy vocal on "You Need Me" over an unaccompanied piano is as gorgeous as the lyrics are stark, and "Blackmail" goes even further. The heavy tracks are worse than ever: "Coward" is probably the most stripped and unflinching in the entire catalog. But as much as Swans thrive on beating us into submission, it's the juxtaposition with softer songs that does the real damage. A sudden shift from pummel to pleading leaves you nauseated, and fascinated, and hopelessly lost. These tricks would coalesce into something infinitely deeper on the next record, but these transitional albums are brilliant in their own right.
5. White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity (1991)
A baby cries, or laughs (it's hard to tell) and a wall of layered guitar and chiming keys falls like a curtain, kicking off Swans' seventh album with a bang. After The Burning World sank like a stone, Swans found themselves without a major label contract. While it likely stung financially, this was a very good thing. White Light carries over the same essential sound of Burning World, psychedelic rock equally lush and dark, but fills in the heaviness that was painfully absent from that record. I get the impression Gira doesn't think much of White Light or Love Of Life (which came immediately afterward) since he reissued them both in compilation form under the name Various Failures. Love Of Life kills, and sounds similar, but there's something pure and perfect about White Light that carries it to greater heights. To think how far Swans had come in less than a decade: from urban noise to the glistening, glimmering sounds of the pensive countryside. The atmosphere feels like something out of an early Cormac McCarthy novel, gothic-noir under the guise of Americana -- horror and beauty, love and death. It's a shame these records never found a larger audience.
4. The Great Annihilator (1995)
Three years of silence followed Love Of Life, while Swans struggled to find a viable label. Another perfectly titled record (there's a pattern here), Annihilator saw a return to devastation in the form of straight-ahead aggression, rock textures and a rediscovered industrial bent -- the difference here is the tribal stomp that carries the record. As always, there are new sounds and ideas at play -- Swans rarely sit still. Some of Jarboe's contributions sound like poetry set to music, whereas Gira finally rediscovers the anger he set aside years before. "Celebrity Lifestyle" is the closest they'd get to mainstream alternative rock, but leave it to Gira to tart things up with a line like "She's just a drug addiction, and a self-reflecting image of a narcotized mind." A certain faction of Swans fans consider this the band's peak, and they're not wrong. At this level, the best records are essentially perfect. The Great Annihilator would be the last record Swans would make as a whole band before breaking up, and it's fucking brilliant straight through.
3. Soundtracks For The Blind (1996)
In a career full of left-turns, departures, and generally weird goddamn music, Soundtracks For The Blind is the single weirdest Swans release by a mile. It's also one of the best. Combining ambient loops and samples, filtered noise and organic drone, field-recordings and samples, musique concrete, live recordings, lullabies, near-techno bursts of electronica, and left-handed passages of guitar-driven post-rock that get as big as anything Godspeed You! Black Emperor would do, Gira had assembled one of the most complex, audacious records ever made, more or less by himself, right before he killed the band. It's stuttering and schizophrenic, entirely engrossing, and just … more than you can wrap your head around. There's literally nothing like it. It's their longest record, clocking in at 141 minutes -- yet nothing goes to waste. Few bands would or could go where Swans went here without losing themselves completely; in the inspired hands of Michael Gira, Soundtracks is a definitive release.
2. The Seer (2012)
No band should be this strong in their third decade. It defies all conventional logic -- just another act of Swans defiance, it seems. After the strong-but-not-quite-great 2010 album My Father Will Guide Me… it was hard to imagine Swans making something this powerful. The Seer dispenses with the folkiness of Angels Of Light in favor of epic sprawl. This is the second of their true double albums, only slightly shorter than Soundtracks For The Blind. For an 11-track record that lasts more than two hours -- including two 20-minute tracks and one that stretches to an eye-watering 32 minutes -- it never lags. Rather, it soars consistently, roughly encapsulating just about everything the band has ever done while inventing a new strain of apocalyptic drone. Where the kaleidoscopic Soundtracks For The Blind felt like the work of a demented auteur locked away in a room, The Seer feels very much like the product of a band at the height of its powers. Guitars are the driving force as the band turns back to the weight of the early years, while folding in the delicacy of Gira's Angels Of Light. And Jarboe returns! Finally! (If only for two songs.) In interviews, Gira has called this the culmination of everything he's done across 30 years, and it absolutely sounds like it. You get pounding post-punk exercises like "Mother Of The World," the screeching noise of "93 Ave. B Blues", a Karen O-sung acoustic ballad, "Song for a Warrior", and the astonishing 30-minute crush of the title track. Let's hope there's more where this came from.
1. Children Of God (1987)
Children Of God is not the boldest or strangest thing Swans would do. Rather, it's the one shining moment where every strength, ambition, and shade of Swans past and future would congeal into something sublime. Up till this point, earlier songs were content to lock into a groove and bash away until your ears bled or you simply stopped listening. COG saw Swans discover the power of progression: Even the most raucous bits develop into something else (often something worse), but they inevitably change for the better. And, for the first time, it's thematically huge: This is a record about, and for, God. The usual Swans themes are recast in service of religious fervor, and everything suddenly feels light-years deeper. "New Mind" comes stomping out of the gate, Gira's stentorian bark set against a chain gang call-and-response -- by song's end, noise washes in and everything swirls away, settling into the wounded restraint of Jarboe's "In My Garden." That balance -- loud and quiet, dark and light -- defines the entire album. The whole thing is a complex sequence of juxtaposed sounds and ideas -- its strength comes from the delicate balance, and the imagined in-between space where we continually find ourselves. The ugliest songs inevitably lead to the most beautiful, sex continually butts up against religion (most obviously in the riff-prayer of "Sex, God, Sex"), and songs bleed from wasted blues to art metal, sluggish folk to battering noise. It's everything all at once, in harmony and perfect conflict. When I reach for Swans, I inevitably go straight for Children Of God.