Swans – Soundtracks for the Blind (Reissue)

Posted: 31 May 2018 in Albums
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Young God Records

It’s perhaps too much to convey the experience of hearing Soundtracks for the Blind for the first time on its release in 1996. Admittedly, hearing any Swans release for the first time was memorable – I was introduced in the late 80s via Children of God, which, aged 17, was unlike anything I had heard before. It was what one might call a pivotal moment. I was compelled to explore their back-catalogue, which yielded a succession of further pivotal moments, not east of all on the discovery of Cop.

For all its length, The Great Annihilator was pretty straightforward, and represented a continuation of the White Light / Love of Life albums. Just a year later, Soundtracks for the Blind was altogether different, and represented a new expansion on all levels. It was about three hours long, for a start. The third song was over a quarter of an hour long, and there were extensive instrumental passages that bordered on ambient. Elsewhere, reworkings of older songs, bent almost beyond recognition (‘YRP’ and ‘YRP 2’ emerging from ‘Your Property’ from 1984’s Cop), surfaced amidst the churning soundscapes drawn from the contents of the library of tape loops and found sounds gathered by Michael Gita over the band’s whole career. It felt like the culmination of a lifetime’s work. It felt fitting it should be Swans’ final studio album, and it seems appropriate that its remastered reissue should arrive when Gira has again called time on the band. Its arrival gives us cause to reflect on the cyclical nature of the band’s career, and the differences and similarities between their first unbroken span and their later incarnation, which closed with another uber epic in the form of The Glowing Man and followed by a live document (as Soundtracks was accompanied by the conclusive Swans are Dead, so The Glowing Man was accompanied by Deliquescence).

This is the first time Soundtracks has been released on vinyl, and naturally, its formatting and packaging is something else: as the press release and Young God website detail, ‘the vinyl package will consist of four LPs in jackets enclosed in a box with a poster, insert and download card. The box set will be a limited edition of 4,000 copies worldwide and once sold out will be followed later in 2018 by a gatefold LP version. The album will also be reissued on CD featuring a repackage of the original digipak for the 1996 Atavistic release plus a bonus disc of the contemporaneous Die Tür Ist Zu EP (a German language version of some of the material from Soundtracks that also includes unique material) recently released for the first time on vinyl in the USA for Record Store Day 2018. Outside of the USA, Die Tür Ist Zu EP will be released as a limited edition companion piece double vinyl set, also on 20th July’. Yes, as with the previous reissues, they’ve gone all put to render a truly definitive edition.

Listening to Soundtracks now, it seems that Gira, having declared the band spent in 1997, spent a long time cogitating over the directions and possibilities that this album presented, and took them as the starting point for the post-millennial iteration: it certainly shares more with this period than its predecessors, with exceptions like ‘The Yum Yab Killers’ which delivers the same kind of punch as ‘Mother/Father’ on The Great Annihilator (and recoded live, with somewhat muffled sound, it still seems a shade incongruous in its inclusion here, although Jarboe sounds so fucking fierce I’d not want to make to big a deal of it). We’re reminded, too, that Soundtracks emerged during a fairly prolific spell for Gira, and it’s perhaps inevitable that elements of other projects – namely the solo album Drainland and The Body Lovers / The Body Haters. ‘All Lined Up’ is a different version of ‘I See Them All Lined Up’ which featured on Drainland. It’s simultaneously more distorted and weirded-out, and more explosive, more driving, more… Swans.

Some of the rambling monologues are quite disturbing (with recordings of Gira’s father talking about his life and excerpts from FBI tapes, amongst other things), but then so is the musical accompaniment that provides the backdrop: ‘I Was a Prisoner Inside Your Skull’ and ‘How they Suffer’ make for uncomfortable listening.

There are some incredibly tender, raw, emotive moments: Gira’s voice, cracked and plaintive on ‘Animus’, as woodwind bursts around him from a hovering hush, is one of Swans’ most affecting moments. For a band whose back catalogue contains some of the most intense sonic brutality ever committed to tape, it’s quite a contrast, and perhaps all the more moving in context.

It’s a sprawling expanse of sound, and it isn’t entirely cohesive. Gira’s conception of sound as something malleable and his approach to dynamics would evolve immensely in the time away from Swans, and as such, Soundtracks is as much a signpost toward the next phase as a bookend to the one it belongs. At the time, it was almost too much to digest. On revisiting, the same holds true. The density of both sound and ideas, the sheer scale of the album, the fact that it condenses fifteen years into two and a half hours… of course it’s too much to bear. This was always the way with Swans: even their gentler albums are delivered with an intensity that transcends words. And this, of course, is the ultimate objective of music – to touch body and mind in ways that are beyond any form of articulation. Soundtracks for the Blind doesn’t simply touch those parts, but poke, prod, squeeze and stab at them.

AA

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