It starts with a cacophony of bells, but soon gives way to a martial bludgeon: vast open chords and pummelling thumps on the drums overlaid with sweeps, swoops and screeches as if machinery were torturing instruments… or maybe as if instruments were torturing machinery. After a few minutes of this black-spattered pomp and circumstance, rattling snares and a satanic orchestral wall of clangour rises up beneath a voice reminiscent of Lou Reed at his lowest most misanthropic moments, mantra-chanting into the deep of the heroin night. Squealing strings and reverberating echoes of hell-knows what crescendo toward sudden moments of comparative calm, pregnant with malice; the volume and density of sound flows and ebbs like the tide that thumps sluggish through the veins of the dying, until all ends in shrill shivering tremors and the sudden thump of terminus.
This is “No Words/No Thoughts”, the first track of the new Swans album, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky. Swans are a band I know more by repute than by genuine familiarity; a former housemate once played me their infamous live album – which I remember finishing with a half-hour one-chord wall-of-sound which sounded like the end of civilisation as we know it – and I’ve encountered bits of their material here and there, but they’re not the sort of band that gets played at clubs or on the radio. Swans do not make happy music. (This is, quite possibly, the greatest understatement a music critic could utter.)
Swans was also supposed to be a dead and buried project, by decision of front-man and avant-noise legend Michael Gira, but after years of working under other monikers, he decided his latest work should march under the old banner. This is not a comeback album, we’re told… and I don’t know the earlier stuff well enough to be able to call him out on that. So let’s leave history in its shallow grave, and ask instead what My Father… says about the times in which we find ourselves.
In short, I don’t think you could ask for a more appropriate soundtrack to a recession-racked world where hypocrites and liars twitch our strings to make us dance to their tunes. With the exception of that staggering medicine-ball of an opener, much of My Father… is more spacious and spare than the “classic” Swans material I’ve encountered before, and I’ve read other reviews that suggest Gira has mellowed somewhat with age… but unless you’re privy to secret lists of black-hearted nihilist musicians that I have yet to encounter, you’re unlikely to have heard anything this misanthropic in quite some time. Swans make the clichéd “black” symbolisms of most heavy metal sound like the shallow reappropriations and dress-up games they really are. Hate doesn’t come from hell, it comes from human hearts… and Gira has either encountered a lot of it, or simply finds it to be the theme he best knows how to bring to life.
Gira’s roots lie in the same No-Wave noise-rock soil that nurtured Sonic Youth, but there are few concessions to (or even commentaries on) pop and rock formulas to be found here. “You Fucking People Make Me Sick” features Gira’s three-year-old daughter on backing vocals, lending a distinctly creepy edge to what would already be a bleak and barbed piece of music, its latter half consisting of what sounds to me like random rasping brass drones combined with the sound of someone battering a piano’s strings with a pair of kettle drum beaters. And if you wanted to soundtrack that grainy old cinefilm footage of the Nazi pogroms against the Jews in post-Weimar Germany, you’d struggle to pick something more evocative and stomach-churningly sinister than the swelling necrotic clamour of the first half of “Inside Madeline”, which then goes and turns the tables on you completely by mutating into a stately and mournful Lou Reed-does-Mark Lanegan dirt-gospel lament.
This post-apocalypse zombie-country vibe appears frequently on My Father…; “Reeling The Liars In” is sparse and bitter nihilism with a barely-disguised sneer of irony hovering on its lips, while “Jim” also has a grim and funereal vibe, like the flood dead of New Orleans marching through the city’s streets at night to air their grievances and resentment with those that survived… and those that failed to help them.
What should be abundantly clear from this review – not to mention from a few minutes of actually listening to My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky – is that Swans is not a project concerned with capturing common notions of the beautiful. But if you’ve the stomach for it, there’s a form of beauty to be found here nonetheless. I remember walking with my mother as a small child of maybe five or so; we’d take the same route down country lanes each day, and for a few weeks we passed the corpse of a badger laid in the hedgerow; after my initial horror and revulsion, there came a fascination with the steady and ineluctable process of decay, the dead flesh carried away by scavengers and insects over time to reveal the stark white simplicity of the skeleton within. In hindsight, it was a very formative experience for me: my first introduction, perhaps, to the inevitability of decay and the cycle of existence. There is a cold and implacable beauty to nature, and to death – and that’s the same beauty I hear in Swans.
Those who tell you that art should only reflect the good are fools, liars or both. Don’t turn away; there are lessons to be learned for those willing to listen.