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. Start the Countdown here.
*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).