Swans – Children of God (2020 Remaster)

Posted: 22 September 2020 in Albums
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It was through Children of God that I was first introduced to Swans. It was probably around 1988 or ‘89, so Children of God was their then latest album, and I was starting to properly spend my Saturdays hanging out at the second-hand record shop where I would subsequently land a job. Another guy who hung around / worked there had dark, diverse, and obscure musical tastes, and passed me a copy of the album he’d recorded to tape. This is a perfect example of why home taping didn’t kill music.

And so, while it’s an album I have played a lot over the last – urgh – thirty years – it’s one I’ve listened to without necessarily reappraising. There’s nothing like a reissue to provoke such contemplation.

And even now it’s by turns eerie, chilling, and heavy as hell. Admittedly, it’s not as heavy as the releases which preceded it, and which I would subsequently discover – at that time by plundering racks at record fares, at a time when it was paying £8 for a vinyl copy of Cop or the Young God EP felt like a lot of money but there was no other means of hearing this stuff back then.

There isn’t a lot audibly different from the early 00’s reissue here. For any remastering, the sound is still dense and murky, and that’s to the good, and it’s an integral part of the listening experience.

The first grainy chords of ‘New Mind’ bludgeon hard, and it’s a bleak, oppressive trudge when taken in isolation (by which I mean, without comparison to their back catalogue). It doesn’t exactly scream ‘MTV exposure’, but weird shit was happening back then. And shift didn’t get much weirder than Swans’ foray into evangelism – pitched as an exploration, it adopted the tropes with such a seriousness that it almost felt like the real thing.

‘You’re not Real, Girl’ is dreamy, opiate woozy, sultry, serpentine: Gira croons lazily, drawling, but also hollow, empty, his voice reverberating in a chasm of nothing. It’s hard to articulate precisely how deeply this resonates, and it’s all in the delivery, which rattles and reverberates around the ribcage and the cranium in an hypnotic swoon.

‘Beautiful Child’ is a raging stomp, ‘this is my life! This is sacrifice! This is my damnation! This is my only regret! That I ever was born!’ Gira screams maniacally, over and over, and over and over. Jarboe’s vocals soar like a chorus of ghosts over the ugly march.

My personal favourite track on the album is ‘Trust Me’, with a trilling harmonica intro giving way to a landslide of discord and gut-punching percussion. Against lurching guitars, Gira’s vocal is detached, inhuman, other-wordly, a cavernous monotone

As fans will be more than aware, the Swans catalogue is a shade messy, particularly around their late 80s / early 90s period. ‘Blackmail’ first appeared on the ‘Time is Money’ 12” in ’86, so the Children of God album version is a revisitation and a subtle reworking. With the 1999 compilation Various Failures and the previous CD reissue being long out of print, it may have perhaps been nice for the ‘New Mind’ b-sides ‘Damn You to Hell’ and ‘I’ll Swallow You’ to have been included here, but on the other hand, this release retains the integrity of the original.

The contemporaneous live album, Feel Good Now very much does, though. Recorded on the European tour supporting Children of God, it packs some storming live renditions of songs culled from Children of God performed during a quite specific peak of the band’s live career.

Swans have always pushed the limits live, and taken the songs to new and different levels of intensity and duration, and the eighteen-minute rendition of ‘Blind Love’ on offer here is a prime example. It’s barely recognisable, and despite being led by a simple acoustic guitar, it’s absolutely fucking punishing – and not necessarily in a good way: Gira’s elongated notes and wordless, formless yells are uncomfortable, a raging beast tortured and pained, while the guitar and rhythm section batter away without mercy. The drums are brutal. Having witnessed Swans live post-millennium, I have come to appreciate that nothing short of nuclear annihilation can convey the sheer force and volume of Swans live. However, Feel Good Now definitely goes a long way to capture the intensity of that volume.

The tracks appear in a different order from the original release, instead representing the sequence of the 2002 reissue. As this isn’t an actual concert, but a document of a tour, the sequencing is largely inconsequential, and ultimately it’s about the cumulative, bludgeoning effect. The sawing churn of ‘Like a Drug’ is pulverising, brutal, nauseating, and while ‘Children of God’ may only run for five and a half minutes, the effect is something else, the drumming thumping relentlessly in rolls of pure assault. Gira hollers impenetrably into the void as Jarboe ‘s voice floats effortlessly and with grace and true beauty over the ugly, pounding mess.

‘Beautiful Child Reprise’ is so savage as to be almost unlistenable long before it gets to the ‘Kill, kill, kill’ chant. It will come as no surprise for anyone who’s encountered Swans’ pre-85 live material, but fuck me. If one band could be considered to define excruciating sonic brutality, it’s Swans.

Children of God was a pivotal album, and remains a particular high point in the band’s career on many levels. There is no question that it broke new ground, or that it broke them to a new and far wider audience, although there is no way you could describe it as commercial or even accessible in terms of the common understanding of the term. It also very much stands alone in terms of its sound, defining the crossroads between the crushing basalt slabs of violent loathing which defined their early years, and the almost folksy melodicism of their early 90s releases.

What this edition lacks in terms of additional material and, indeed, any radical audio differences from any other editions through its remastering, it makes up for by simply making the recordings available again, particularly on vinyl.

AA

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