Tanner Babcock

  1. Opinions
  2. Music Reviews

Swans (The Angels of Light)

Return to Music ReviewsAbout These ReviewsRandom Music Page

Year Title Rating
1982 Swans 7/10
1983 Filth 7.5/10
1984 Cop 8/10
1984 Young God 7/10
1986 Greed 6/10
1986 Holy Money 6.5/10
1986 Public Castration Is a Good Idea 7.5/10
1987 Children of God 7/10
1987 The World of Skin - Blood, Women, Roses 4.5/10
1988 The World of Skin - Shame, Humility, Revenge 5/10
1989 The Burning World 5/10
1990 The World of Skin - Ten Songs for Another World .../...
1991 White Light from the Mouth of Infinity 8/10
1992 Love of Life 6.5/10
1992 Omniscience 5/10
1995 The Great Annihilator 6.5/10
1996 Soundtracks for the Blind 9/10
1998 Swans Are Dead 8/10
1998 The Body Lovers - The Body Lovers/The Body Haters 7.5/10
1999 The Angels of Light - New Mother 5.5/10
2001 The Angels of Light - How I Loved You 8/10
2003 The Angels of Light - Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home 6.5/10
2005 The Angels of Light - Sing Other People 6.5/10
2007 The Angels of Light - We Are Him 7/10
2010 My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky 5.5/10
2012 The Seer 7/10
2014 To Be Kind 6.5/10
2016 The Glowing Man 5.5/10

Review last updated: April 19, 2017

Swans was probably one of my most expensive and impassioned rock music fixations. While I'm not as crazy about them as I used to be, I still strongly believe in their music and will still defend it.

Michael Gira's Swans introduced a number of powerful ideas into the head of the rock listener. Deeply rooted in the terrifying early releases is a desire to alienate and protest reality. The tragedies of Filth and Cop were pure concentrated agony and self-loathing, expressed through nauseous repetitive anti-structures. It is possible to interpret each of the early Swans traumas, as either a social satire shamefully depicting poverty in New York in the early eighties, or a psychological hellscape of a self-tortured individual. Filth particularly attacks many elements of traditional "masculinity" and gender roles. It is a nihilistic self-destruct button, the burden and shame and long-internalized suffering of the trapped industrial worker.

But, I could talk forever about early Swans' social and psychological significance, what I'd like to talk about now is the immediate physical affects of the music itself. I cannot recall just how many times Cop and Public Castration Is a Good Idea have made me sick to my stomach. These tormented cries create the claustrophobic mindscape of something going around, and around, and around. I find it ironic and sad that the famous "teeth" image of the Filth cover is turning into the Joy Division brainwave icon, an artifact of rock music used to turn it into a fashion statement. I hope any of the young kids compelled by the "badass with the teeth" actually trap themselves in this black hole of nihilistic nuance that is this body of work. It will do them some good.

You'd think this idea of a rock band (if it ever was one) would become dull or irrelevant after a few years, but it didn't. Somehow this physical presence turned into an Orwellian hypnosis with Christ-like figures, with Children of God. I've noticed two common interpretations of this album, the main one (really) is that this is a satire of organized religion, exaggerating the hypocrisies. The other less popular one is that this is a genuinely religious work, like a chapel painting or a hymn, and listeners often mistake it for satire or parody a la Residents or Frank Zappa. I've always thought of it as the satirical album, rather than the genuine album, but sometimes I find myself feeling otherwise. My only sure opinion is that it is not as good as Cop.

Swans had a brief glimpse of mainstream popularity (before the Seer 2012 craze) with The Burning World, their one and only album produced on a major record label (MCA Records). This is Michael Gira at his absolute worst. This album was a horrifying attempt to commercialize an incredibly forward-thinking group with pop songs, covers, and ballads. The only reason Swans caught the attention of MCA Records was for their unexpectedly popular cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart". Oddly prophetic, is it not? Now they're performing a cover of "Can't Find My Way Home", and the suspiciously fashionable "God Damn the Sun" and "(She's a) Universal Emptiness". Michael Gira's one and only major-label album was a shitty album. It did not sell very well, and they were dropped from MCA Records. So, in 1987, independently, they put out a pretty good album, 1989, they somehow get a huge budget make a dud full of ballads, 1991, they get dropped and put out their best album at that point, using a drastic change in style.

White Light from the Mouth of Infinity had emerged from the rubble of the MCA Records signing. This album was colorful, not black and white arthouse the way something like Greed was, and it was suddenly a vivid composition, not a stale rock song but also not a monotonous dirge into despair. Gira's compositions had matured and flowered in a way they haven't before.

Love of Life, the sister album, was solid on its own, but unremarkable and often (deservedly) overshadowed by White Light. The sound had become less baroque and more atmospheric on The Great Annihilator, another neat-but-not-groundbreaking trope of gothic rock cliches.

In 1996, Swans achieved what I believe to be their masterpiece. I firmly conclude this is my second-favorite of all time, the intense, fragmented mindscape Soundtracks for the Blind. At this point, Gira had decided that Swans is to break up, after a final album and a final tour. Soundtracks is merely disguised a big cluster of ideas, a sink of sorts for scraps of the band's career. But, it is rather a revealing, honest search for meaning and closure, after the loss of a loved one. Many of the found voice recordings on here were taken from Gira's own mother and father. The woman talking about talking to a masturbating man on the phone is Jarboe's mother. This fragile emotional state was not only expressed through sound collage, but also through rich atmospheres, drones, soundscapes. "The Sound" and "Helpless Child" change the ideas of what a rock song is. Every track on this is rich, emotional, perfect.

1998 was the release of Swans Are Dead, the two-CD live album documenting the 1995 and 1997 tours. This is the perfect companion album to Soundtracks, but it is also incredibly forward-thinking on its own. Swans had long abandoned the dirge into despair, for the flowery atmospheres, but somehow this recording brings about a physical force that was absent for years. I highly recommend anyone unfamiliar with this group to listen to this before Soundtracks. The first disc, on its own, is incredible, captivating, and powerful, especially for being a live performance. The second disc (the majority of which is renditions from Soundtracks) is still enjoyable, but it does not match the power of the first.

And that was it. Gira had moved on to other projects. The most promising records to come from this period are The Body Lovers/The Body Haters recordings, and The Angels of Light How I Loved You. The Angels of Light is much more approachable than anything Swans did, as it is Gira at his midlest, and most sensitive.

Cop

==== THE FOLLOWING REVIEW was written by me for Rate Your Music.com, sometime in 2013. This has not been edited since I wrote it. ===

Swans were the some of the most provocative artists of the late twentieth century. They delivered the most extreme music they could with rock instrumentals. Disorienting repetition, ugly, gruesome textures, and a percussive, almost abusive style of playing their instruments, were some of their music's most notable qualities. They were not only interested in musical extremes, but extremes in human nature, exposing many uncomfortable truths and dark fantasies of the twisted human psyche. Their earlier works, lyrically, were concerned with struggles for dominance and submission, slavery, rape, torture, and cannibalism.

Swans did not base their entire presentation on shock value. Their messages, which included satires of American culture, capitalism, and religion, were innately cynical, but some of the most important. They effectively illustrated how power, of any kind, ultimately intoxicates and dehumanizes anyone who bears it. They insisted man was nothing more than his primate ancestors. The goal of their music, was to shatter any and all illusions, comforting lies, and false fantasies the public might be convincing themselves into. If Cesar A. Cruz was right, and art's goal is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, then Swans were the most important rock band of the 1980s.

Cop was one of Swans' most successful efforts. Unlike Filth, Holy Money, and Children of God, Cop is consistent in both its sound and its message. It is uncompromising and relentless. It's the best example of Swans' intentions in their early period, and it's the only Swans record that still makes me sick to my stomach. It is an absolute essential for anyone interested in extremism in music.

Soundtracks for the Blind

==== THE FOLLOWING REVIEW was chosen for the front page of Rate Your Music.com in early 2013, as the review for Soundtracks for the Blind. I recently recovered this from a high school document. It has not been edited.====

The year is 1996. Swans frontman Michael Gira has decided to disband the group, after fourteen years and nine embarrassing albums. Before abandoning the project for more acoustic efforts, Gira decided to produce one more album. A sort of compilation of loose ends, unfinished songs, live recordings, drones, and sound experiments. Why produce an album that's two and a half hours long, with all this weird stuff on it? The real question is, why not? The band is breaking up anyway. The short amount of time on a major record label, and the brief glimpse of mainstream popularity was squandered on a mediocre baroque pop album. What do they have to lose?

This careless approach to the arrangement and production gave Swans a creative freedom that the average rock artist doesn't see. This freedom (perhaps unintentionally) opened the door to a variety of cold, depressing, painful emotions. Soundtracks for the Blind is an album about death. Much of the album's content was inspired by the death of Gira’s father in 1990, and the intense feelings of longing and helplessness such an event would provoke. For example, the piece, "I Was a Prisoner in Your Skull", features a monologue from an unidentified voice. The voice tells you how "fucked up" you are, noting how you're capable of cooking eggs and bacon for yourself, but you don't know how to use a fork. This piece illustrates the album's theme better than any other piece on the album: Not until a loved one is gone do you realize how helpless and weak you are without them.

"Helpless Child", a fifteen-minute post-rock epic, pushes this concept even further, with acoustic guitars, synthesizers, intense percussion, and guitar distortion. Its lyrics are painful and heartbreaking. "How They Suffer" is a sound experiment that includes a field recording of Gira’s father talking about losing his eyesight (hence the title of the album, Soundtracks for the Blind). The gothic minimalism and gruesome lyrical themes of "All Lined Up" make it a genuinely disturbing track. "The Sound", my personal favorite on the album, is a chaotic thirteen-minute trek, that piles Velvet Underground guitar distortion, pummeling percussion, and repetitive drones on top of a simple vibraphone melody. It is progressive rock in its most primitive form. "YRP" is a heavily reworked version of "Your Property" of 1984's Cop. "The Final Sacrifice", the album's powerful, passionate climax, is a prolonged version of "One Small Sacrifice" of 1988's Shame, Humility, Revenge.

The final track on the album is titled "Surrogate Drone", and it's exactly what the name suggests: two minutes of a constant noise. The album ends with what sounds like someone unplugging a piece of machinery. This sound symbolizes the end of a life. The end of a band. The end of an era.

Soundtracks for the Blind is one of my absolute favorites. It is considered one of the first post-rock albums, with legends Godspeed You! Black Emperor citing it as an influence. Even its dullest moments are dark and mysterious. Even its most bizarre monologues are emotional and moving. Soundtracks is a beautiful listening experience, and it's one of the most ambitious, haunting, and genuinely disturbing records I've ever heard.