Back when James Murphy made his list the swans were RIP. Broken up in 1997. And maybe not missed so much.
Old Swans were New York noise terrorists out of the school of Sonic Youth (who’s Lee Ranaldo took this shot). As founder Michael Gira said recently:
”When we did what we did in the early days there was no context for it, so it was shocking,” he recalls. “It seemed brutal and offensive.”
They were loud when I saw them, brutally loud and almost ear rendingly painful. I have only ever seen My Bloody Valentine play louder, and Motorhead was a distant third. They were violent too with Gira intermittently ejecting stage divers by force. Only The Birthday Party carried the same implicit threat about them.
Swans sleeves looked like this -
and had titles like that, and weren’t fucking easy to like. If you are inclined to get the feeling try the bass buzz of “Young God” but turn your system to it’s red zone. And wallow a bit.
I don’t think that I can recommend much to listen to from that time, although their extremism doubtless made them attractive to Murphy.
The new Swans pictured below -
are something of a different matter. Gira’s reformed band have perfected a new take on The Great Cosmic American Music. Like a country version of Mogwai. And somewhat in the vein of Godspeed! You Black Emperor meets Lambchop.
New Swans is still intense. The band still play lengthy, sonicly complex pieces like the 32 minute title piece to last album The Seer. They still experiment with noisy passages and heavy riffs and drone type structures but now melody is a key part. The variety of instruments has widened as far as pedal steel guitars – like extra colours on an artist’s palate. Gira says:
"It’s not as brutal is it? It’s more musical …..I want the audience to be inside the music as well,"
And the intense country flavoured pieces are broken up by little nuggets of songwriting perfection, with occasional guest vocals. Here is one, voiced by Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O -
Somehow they have added to the Gram Parsons canon by finding another, previously unexplored way, to capture the spirit of America musically. It’s the sound of wide open spaces and maybe the desert. I haven’t seen this line up myself but I have a sense you could enjoy it, and maybe even stay in the room, even if the sets – at 3 hours – might test your endurance in another way.
New Swans songs even have grooves, but not Gira reassures to dance too:
”To fuck to it would probably be better … sex to a triple album on vinyl .. Man, you need some technique.”
Gira is a funny smart man. He used his sabbatical to run the Young God record label that found Devendra Barnhart and the last three Swans albums (including the new one To Be Kind which is out any day) have added a lot to their legacy – especially for me as I didn’t much care for the first 10 (yes that’s ten) albums. You might even go so far as to say that “my Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky” is a bit of a modern classic you ought to hear. And you can’t say that about many reformed bands.
Gira has something to say still:
”Irony and cynicism are the killers of possibility and I’m more about what’s possible.”
And that’s reason enough to listen.
If you are sick of losing your eardrums to vintage Swans then for the 2014 update Cool Accidents recommends My Bloody Valentine as another earache to drop. You’ll get the idea below -
Equally you could try the stoner rock of Blue Cheer “the loudest band ever”
Both will keep you very much on edge. But perhaps the nearest is Dylan Carlson’s band earth who have mutated their bass led noiseworks into something almost beautiful as epitomised by “The Bees made Honey in The Lion’s Skull” (by the way this is a full album link, so you might just want to dip in)