Swans is a band from New York, United States, active from 1982 to 1997, reformed in 2010, led by singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira.
Marginally associated with the no wave scene at first, their original sound was slow and extremely heavy, with live performances that were often so brutal and physical that in a number of instances certain audience members were made ill, police were called and venues were shut down. This early physical sound is possibly best heard on the live album Public Castration Is A Good idea.
Their initial style shifted a little by the time Swans released seminal twin albums Greed and Holy Money. The music had sped up, at times being even more punishing than their earlier output. Drum machines and samples were slightly more prominent. Michael Gira was joined vocally by Jarboe which gave the band a broader sonic range. Tracks featuring Jarboe were often quieter, even pretty, acting as counterpoint to the more harrowing themes on the albums. Over time, this style would come to dominate Swans' output, although they somehow seem to have been able to make a strummed acoustic guitar seem as brutal as their earlier amped-up assaults. The lush instrumentation of their albums from the late 1980s and the 1990's anticipated the birth of post-rock.
Swans eventually broke up in 1997; Gira went on to release some solo work, later forming the band The Angels Of Light, who continue many of the themes and styles found in (later) Swans. Jarboe releases solo work and frequently works with other bands and artists; recently she released an album with Neurosis, a group clearly heavily influenced by Swans.
The influence of Swans upon the music world is profound. Across their 15 years of existence, the various styles they explored gave birth to grindcore (Napalm Death, Nasum) modern "cinematic" post-rock (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mono), and atmospheric sludge metal (Isis, Neurosis).
In January 2010, Michael Gira reactivated Swans and released a new album, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky on September 2010, and the band simultaneously embarked on a world tour scheduled to last eighteen months. The band had been chosen by Portishead to perform at the ATP I'll Be Your Mirror festivals that they curated in July 2011 at London's Alexandra Palace and in September 2011 in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
On August 28, 2012, Swans released The Seer, a double-album running almost 2 hours in length. Frontman Michael Gira described the album as taking "30 years to make. It's the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I've ever made, been involved in or imagined. But it's unfinished, like the songs themselves. It's one frame in a reel. The frames blur, blend and will eventually fade." Describing the songwriting process, Gira said, "The songs began on an acoustic guitar, then were fleshed out with (invaluable) help from my friends, then were further tortured and seduced in the studio, and now they await further cannibalism and force-feeding as we prepare to perform some of them live, at which point they'll mutate further, endlessly, or perhaps be discarded for a while."
Michael Gira will have none of that. At the beginning of the final tour of his band Swans, Gira took the time to discuss the end of a 15 year odyssey as one of contemporary music's most highly regarded and overlooked bands. "I just want to have it discreet, finished and over, and I can move on. I have other ideas I want to do. I think it's necessary," he said by phone from Florida. Bursting from the NY scene in the early 80's, the Swans' sound was so heavy, so threatening that listeners either fled in fear or joined the throng. There was never a middle ground. And there still isn't.
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Over time, Gira's sense of darkness deepened and in the process the songs turned into something delicate and beautiful while remaining frightening. Like a slow-motion plane disaster, a lyricism emerged from the chaos. New listeners and old discovered a rock band with as much richness and subtlety as a classical symphony orchestra. Still, even with 15 years, 15 albums and mountains of gushing praise from fans and critics alike, Gira saw that it was time to write the final coda for his band. "After 15 years of this grueling struggle with really no reward to show for it, the intelligent thing to do would be to move on," he said. Artistic triumph and personal despair mark the Swans. Claiming he would do and has done just about anything to record his creative vision, Gira found an enemy where you might expect an ally - the music industry. "I loathe it entirely. We found our own little niche now, with our own business and good distribution system, so we're able to survive on our own, I just can't deal with it. I don't go out to clubs. I don't talk to A&R people; I don't schmooze; I don't do anything to try to advance myself in that way. I just can't stand it anymore. I tried in the early days. Of course I was always pounding away. But there's only so much you can take."
Closing out the Swans' catalog is "Soundtracks For The Blind." If Gira has been seeking a high point on which to end the Swans, then this is it. Two CDs, packed with nearly 2 1/2 hours of music, the album is a scorching journey through passion and pain. The discs combine music with sounds and sonic interludes into something that strikes you as an actual sound track for an unmade movie. Highly experimental without ever becoming cerebral, "Soundtracks" works from the ambiguous emotional source where fear and excitement, love and lust, tears of happiness, and tears of sorrow mingle.
"I had recorded these songs from the last group from last year's tour. And I had a lot of backlog of sound-track-like things, as well as boxes full of sounds, cassette loops and vocal loops from Jarboe, and all these narrative things that we have from very personal sources. And I decided that I wanted to pursue a direction that has sort of intrigued me after the last couple of albums. I made the whole album into a segue feeling, where everything bleeds from one unrelated sound to another," he explained. "The thing that interested me most about this album - not that I'm not interested in songs - but it's more interesting to me to look at the way one thing works against something else than how they do individually. So it's a process of listening to how it feels, what the experience is like going from something that is incredibly intense to something very gentle. Those juxtapositions interest me more than the things themselves."
Once the tour is completed, Gira intends to release a summary set of Swans music in Double-CD sets, putting only the best of the band's work into an accessible package for present and future fans. In addition, his label will issue experimental soundscapes by Gira under the name Body Lovers and another project of what Gira calls "long narrative songs" as the Angels of Light. The re-issues and the new projects will continue to sustain both Gira's voracious artistic appetite as well as reward those lucky enough to seek out his work or lucky enough to stumble upon it. And as the Swans legacy fades into history, Gira can look back and see he did what he set out to do. "I never had an aim except to make music, not to convince people of anything. I just had certain sounds I wanted to hear. I made them. Certain sounds, certain ways of performing them that would cause a certain experience to occur, in myself and/or the listener. And I made those things happen."
Swans - Love will tear us apart (cover)
Swans - Beautiful Child Live 1987
Swans - A Screw (Holy Money) (live)
Swans - Love Of Life
Swans - New Mind
SWANS - God Damn The Sun
SWANS - A SCREW
Swans - See No More
Swans - God Damn The Sun
Swans - Indian Jewelry
Swans - music documentary