Posts Tagged ‘Young God’

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.

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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.