Posts Tagged ‘Solo’

Young God Records – 28th April 2017

Christopher Nosnibor

The great Swans back catalogue reappraisal and re-release continues with a brace of albums from near the end of the band’s initial incarnation. The latest pairs Swans’ 1995 album The Great Annihilator with Gira’s simultaneous solo release, Drainland. 1995 was a fertile year: Jarboe also released Sacrificial Cake through Alternative Tentacles in the same year, in some respects mirroring the period eight years previous, when two different Skin albums – effectively Gia and Jarboe solo releases – appeared in 1987 and 1988 in near synchronicity with Swans’ pivotal Children of God. Indeed, while the ‘definitive’ reissue programme is both extremely welcome and is a genuine boon for Swans fans both new and old, it does highlight the complexity of the band’s back catalogue. Precisely which album sits with which is a question which will never find an easy resolution, but on balance, Gira and Young God have made a decent fist of presenting a cohesive and linear recataloguing of the band’s initial history.

The Swans album The Great Annihilator arrived some three years after the epic twin salvoes of Love of Life and White Light from the Mouth of Infinity, which had represented both an evolution and a return to form following The Burning World in 1989. And while The Great Annihilator clearly belonged to the same broad phase as its immediate predecessors, it also felt more focused and more intense. It also stands as a transitionary album, the last studio release before the immense, everything-through-the-wringer churning mash of Soundtracks for the Blind, at which point the first phase of Swans collapsed and terminated.

Soundtracks perhaps hinted at the direction the reincarnated Swans would take on their return, but lacks the immensity of the sound they would produce on their post-millennial return, and equally lacks the focus of The Great Annihilator, and in this context, it’s this album which stands as such a significant document of the band in the later years of their first phase. The 2002 reissue saw the album augmented with a six-minutelive recording of ‘I Am the Sun’, which is also included here. However, this version is more about presenting a ‘restored’ version, returning to the recently-excavated original tapes to deliver the album as intended.

Great Annihilator / Drainland (Remastered 2017) - PRE ORDER

By this point Gira had perfected the cavernous, monotone drone which is now his signature: emerging on Children of God and honed over the course of White Light and Love of Life, on The Great Annihilator and Drainland the dark, bleak detachment conveyed in that vocal is as terrifying as any of the growling, barking threats of violence contained on Filth and Cop. He may have sounded brutal in his rage on those releases, but here Gira affects a demeanour which is altogether calmer, and consequently all the more dangerous in its psychopathy. He no longer sounds like a tortured, tormented human soul: he sounds like he’s detached himself from humanity.

What makes The Great Annihilator such a strong album is its range, which is equalled by its force and its cinematic production, balancing slow, repetitive, hypnotic tracks with explosive, percussion driven compositions. As such, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the ugly / beautiful juxtaposition which characterises the Swans ethos. The raw, visceral Jarboe-led ‘Mother/Father’ is gruelling in its intensity and contrasts with the mesmeric ‘Killing for Company’ and the expansive, uplifting ‘Where Does a Body End?’ (which stand among some of my all-time favourite songs by Swans – although, if truth be told, in the scheme of their vast output, it would be easy to fill a double album with my favourite songs by Swans).

‘I Am the Sun’ shares common ground with previous percussion-led tracks like ‘Power and Sacrifice’ (which stand a world away from earlier percussion-led tracks as featured on their albums prior to Children of God, which very much marked a turning point for the band), but at the same time, offers the first hints of what the band would evolve to produce during their second, post-millennium phase. Elsewhere, ‘Mind/Body/Sound/Light’ and ‘Celebrity Lifestyle’ display a certain newfound commercialism (beyond the folk leanings of The Burning World), magnificently counterpointed by Gira’s monotone baritone drone. And who else could succeed with a line like ‘she’ just a drug addiction, a self-reflecting image of a narcotized mind’? ‘Alcohol the Seed’, meanwhile, is sparse, stark and harrowing, the direct, declarative lyrics standing at the point where art and life intersect to deliver maximum discomfort to the receiver. ‘Killing for Company’ is delicate yet beyond dark, a song which reflects Gira’s interest in serial killers and takes its title from Brian Masters’ 1993 biography of Dennis Nielsen.

Gira’s solo debut, Drainland, has always stood as a singular release, both stylistically and in overall terms of the Swans / Gira oeuvre. It also seems to be one of those releases which has been somewhat overlooked.

The first track, ‘You See Through Me’, which features a serrated, grating, oscillating drone and haunting piano provide the musical backdrop to a recording of Gira, drunk, nasty, arguing with his then-partner Jarboe over money and his alcohol problem. It’s one of those works which crosses a line that will never be readily acceptable, where art transgresses the boundaries of the personal and the public. This, of course, is art of the highest order, that demands the receiver face uncomfortable and painful realities. Simultaneously, Gira, in his capacity or artist, dismantles all sense of persona and lay himself bare in the most unfiltered way imaginable.

It paves the way for what is a difficult album on every level, as he trawls the darkest recesses of his psyche: the lyrics may not be as visceral as those contained on early Swans releases, but they’re every bit as gut-wrenching in their impact, not least of all because they’re so intensely personal.

Great Annihilator / Drainland (Remastered 2017) - PRE ORDER

It’s a dark, stark album, which makes for uncomfortable listening on many occasions: even the more overtly post-Children of God tracks, where Gira spins hypnotic, opiate-hazed acoustic strums, as on ‘Unreal’, it’s more nightmarish than dream-like. And then there are jarring, nauseatingly difficult loop-led nightmare dirges like ‘Fan Letter’. And yet, the album contains moments of true beauty. Songs like ‘Why I Ate My Wife’ (which again alludes to Gira’s serial killer fascination and also draws on, and shares its title with, a piece from 1993 which appeared in Gira’s book of collected prose, The Consumer (1994)), dark as they may be lyrically, are also truly magnificent, and as touching – and well-crafted – as anything Gira has done during his long career.

The mastering seems comparatively quiet, but that’s largely on account of the fact everything tends to be mastered so damn loud and so damn bright these days that much of the dynamic range is lost. The very purpose of this remaster is about audio fidelity and unravelling knots in the original processing. Sonically, this remaster feels richer, denser than the original releases, although it would take obsessive comparison and a lot of time to draw out all of the detail. Most importantly, this release makes two classic Swans / related albums (one being something of a lost or unsung classic at that) readily available once more, and on vinyl, too – The Great Annihilator has been commanding obscene prices on the second-hand market for a long time now, while Drainland was only released in the US packaged with Jarboe’s Sacrificial Cake and is again expensive and hard to come by: as such, it all adds up to an essential release.

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Hallow Ground – HG1605 – 1st June 2016

Christopher Nosnibor

While MRI, released by Room40 in February, was a reissue of a 2012 album, The All Most Quiet contains new material in the shape of two long-form tracks. Like its predecessor, The All Most Quiet is radically different from his contributions to Swans. The fact he’s actually found the time to compose and record new material is impressive in itself: the latest Swans album, The Glowing Man was released on 10 June, and the two-hour colossus of a sonic experience was developed and recorded off the back of a full year spent touring its predecessor, To Be Kind. Given the duration and intensity of a Swans live show, it’s remarkable that Norman Westberg’s had time to piss and still has the energy to stand, let along record a new album. But then, perhaps his solo work has therapeutic benefits, and affords him the opportunity to decompress after long days spent in the Swans pressure-cooker.

The All Most Quiet is, as the title suggests, not a loud album. It is also a gentle album. But that doesn’t mean it lacks dynamic tension, and while it is calming, it’s also not completely undemanding.

The title track starts its long, meandering journey as a mid-range drone which pulsates subtly. The tonal changes which emerge are gradual. It’s easy to let it simply drift by, and it’s pleasant enough to appreciate in this way, but attentive listening brings its rewards. The introduction of new layers, textures and tones, shifts in the scale and pace of oscillations change the mood, subtly, inconspicuously, but no less definitely. And while The All Most Quiet bears no obvious resemblance to Swans, it is possible to hear a certain correlation in the way Westberg builds on slow-burning transitions to hypnotic effect. There are hints of ominousness and darkness, but the sense of scale and grandeur seeps through the very fabric of the sound. The second track, ‘Sound 2’ maintains the atmosphere, and the absence of any clear highs or lows builds a tension beneath the calm surface.

The All Most Quiet once again highlights the trait I most admire in Norman Westberg’s approach to guitar laying: patience. No heroics. No sense of the ego common to guitar layers. His playing is focused on achieving texture and an overall listening experience. Whether he’s peeling off shards of noise, as on early Swans’ releases or creating more sculpted sound, as on their later releases, and in his solo recordings, at no point dos one ever find oneself thinking ‘what fretwork! What guitar wizardry!’ In fact, much of the time, Westberg’s guitar doesn’t sound like a guitar, particularly on The All Most Quiet. And for the most part, the sound is too immersive for one to really think at all.

 

Norman Westberg - The All Most Quiet

 

Norman Westberg Online