Swans: 10 Songs to Break the Ice (Part 2)

Welcome to part 2 of our 10-song feature on the band Swans. If you’re just joining us, visit here for part 1.

6. Mother/Father (The Great Annihilator, 1994)

My_Buried_ChildMusically, wherever Swans are at any moment, there is a visible path, a logic, to how they got there. When they went pop with Children of God, it was because going pop was – ironically – the bolder, more experimental thing to do. By the time The Great Annihilator rolled out, the Swans sound had significantly evolved once again, existing as a halfway point between the rather restrained Love of Life, and the inaccessible but brilliant Soundtracks for the Blind, released in 1996.

At no point does The Great Annihilator feel hurried, with its damaged pop and deranged folk arrangements wrapped up in that soupy pace that is so characteristically 90’s Swans. “Mother/Father” provides a bit of a break from the mould, sitting snuggly in the fifth position within the album’s excellent mid-section. The remastered version breathes new life into the song, helping to distinguish between individual instruments and Jarboe’s vocals. I absolutely love the way the guitar comes into the mix at around the 20 second mark. A great song with an intoxicating energy.

7. Love Will Save You (White Light From the Mouth of Infinity, 1991)Love_Will_Save_You

When it comes to what their songs are about, M. Gira and Swans are perhaps the most candid band on the planet. I’ve said it before and I will continue to tout the band’s ability to weave a fresh face onto topics as old as time. This is not to say that they are never tongue-in-cheek, but that either way their music always feels forthright. From a spiritual perspective, one could say that the band gleans as much from the 10 commandments as they do the 10 deadly sins. In that vein, throughout the years, Gira has remained an omniscient narrator, unbiased by the plight of this world, an arm’s length away from the very idea of God that is often his muse.

Here, Gira turns his lens on the notion of love, it’s seemingly unwavering power in the face of pain, fear, loss, and any dark shadow that the world may cast over humanity. Lyrically, Gira espouses love as a force that can stand up to any form of wrath, that it will save even in the face of poisonous air, the evil greed of ignorant man, and above all, one’s self. Despite this, Gira sings “but it won’t save me.” In the end, “Love Will Save You” is still the hopeless, self deprecating Swans that have been there from the beginning, dolled up with a shiny exterior, the waxed apple rotten at the core.

8. The Other Side of the World (Love of Life, 1992)

Love of Life is essentially an extension of White Light…, released the following year and musically almost indistinguishable (Love of Life is maybe a bit more experimental, what with the interludes and all). I like to think of the two as sister albums, produced out of the most accessible era of the band – an era that also included the mostly forgettable industry bomb that was The Burning World. Love of Life was not as innovative a release as Swans were capable of at the time, and in my eyes has aged as a noteworthy transitional record with a few really good songs.

Undoubtedly an A-side standout, “The Other Side of the World” sees the band pare back their sound to let Jarboe do what she does best. Her vocal delivery makes this song, and I especially love the way she elongates the last word in each line of the verse, pushing her voice to great effect. The song is languid and hypnotic, but has enough substance to keep one glued to its progression (which is more than I can say for much of Children of God). Neo-folk, art pop, lounge rock, however you want to think about this era of Swans,”The Other Side of the World” is it done right.

9. Children of God (Children of God, 1987)Children_Of_God

Children of God is spotty, but for its shortcomings it contains at least a few of Swans’ best songs. “New Mind” is a fierce opener, matched in intensity only by the title track: a spellbinding final statement to the album. “Children of God” is Swans at their most visceral, opening with punchy, bass-heavy drums, a keyboard made to sound like an organ, and Jarboe’s angelic voice easing us into the forthcoming tumult.

The song only gains momentum as sheets of guitar noise fill-in any remaining emptiness. The call-and-response vocal treatment that the band has come back to time and again is well and alive here, but done in a subtler way, where it almost comes across as a form of phasing. As the song grinds forward, Jarboe begins to echo herself, the words “We are children / Children of God” seeming to come at you from all possible directions. Take my advice: play this one LOUD.

10. Helpless Child (Soundtracks for the Blind, 1996)Helpless_Child

Still the band’s most challenging work to date, Soundtracks for the Blind might as well have been called Michael Gira’s Dark Twisted Fantasy (errr, sorry). As an album, Soundtracks is over 2 hours of beautiful chaos, encompassing the esoteric and the tame, the oddball disco funk of “Volcano” to the Throbbing Gristle-esque skronk of “Yum-Yab Killers.” The album is rife with ambiguous radio/TV samples, and is as droney as it is poppy. If I absolutely had to choose only one Swans album to listen to for the rest of my days, Soundtracks would be it. It possesses all the best elements of the band in one place. And somehow, in its embraced messiness, it really works.

“Helpless Child” is a favourite among Swans fans, including myself. It’s not too hard to hear why this song is consistently noted as a fan fave, especially for those of us who love post-rock and other instrumental and experimental music. The song begins unassumingly enough, as if it could have been plucked from the Burning World sessions. At the seven minute mark it takes a turn, however, a guitar strumming repeatedly over shimmering ambience before giving way to primitive drums. We soon find ourselves in the midst of an instrumental epic that towers over the back half of the song. At 16 minutes, “Helpless Child” packs the emotional weight of an entire album.

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