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Swans

+ {Skin/World Of Skin} + {Michael Gira} + {The Angels Of Light}

A vehicle for the avant-industrial experimentation of one Michael Gira, SWANS took flight in 1982, just when New York was dispensing with the no wave scene. Equally at home in Britain where independents K.422 and Product Inc (both run by Stevo at Mute Records) took the band under their wing, SWANS snapped at the heels of the post-rock music contingent until they migrated to other pastures in 1997. GIRA had already assumed a role as a solo artist (as did off-shoot SKIN accomplice, JARBOE), but when his post-millennium ANGELS OF LIGHT found a black hole, the mighty SWANS resumed in 2010; a rags-to-chart-riches story culminating when 2014’s `To Be Kind’ double-set careered into the Top 40.
Los Angeles-born singer/songwriter/guitarist Michael Gira kick-started his musical career by fronting Little Cripples, who, in turn, became Circus Mort; releasing one eponymous 12” EP in ’81. Del-Byzanteens-bound brothers Dan and Josh Braun (bass and keyboards respectively), guitarist Rick Ollers, and drummer Jonathan Kane were part of this all-too-brief set-up.
SWANS Gira and Kane subsequently roped in guitarist Sue Hanel, but a series of personnel changes led to Hanel making way for Bob Pezzola; Daniel Galli-Duani (saxophone, ex-Transmission) proved more in tune than bassists Thurston Moore (of SONIC YOUTH) and Jon Tessler (latter also percussion, tape loops), while Mojo played drums before the 5-piece recorded their eponymous EP for release in summer ‘82.
While one can only dream of attending a gig that featured both SONIC YOUTH and SWANS (concerts in chaos, and cops called), the latter had not yet settled into being. And then Gira and Kane enlisted Swiss-born Roli Mossiman (percussion, piano), Norman Westberg (guitar) and Harry Crosby (bass) to bolster their punishing and pulsating sound on 1983’s understated FILTH {*6} debut.
The American equivalent of early BAUHAUS, The BIRTHDAY PARTY and KILLING JOKE, Gira and Co strove to torture and provoke the senses, from the opening `Stay Here’ to the uncompromising `Gang’ (and everything else in between). Mossiman’s percussive pounding and Gira’s gnarling angst was not to everyone’s taste – but these SWANS indeed had teeth. Incidentally, Kane would duly form his own outfit, The HOOD.
As bleak and brutal as their previous effort (some would say even more so), COP (1984) {*7} was Gira’s cathartic and confessional soapbox, screaming a mantra of harrowing noise that Messrs LYDON/PiL and LP guest Jim Thirlwell/FOETUS could only dream about. A harsh lesson in rock deconstruction, the record found Gira and Co taking a metamorphic pneumatic drill to the form, and pounding it till it barely even resembled music. Lyrically, the frontman was also scraping the margins, focusing on the blackest, most violent, paranoid and disturbing elements of life’s dark side; added to it’s long-awaited CD release, `Raping A Slave’ for instance, was their most controversial track. Not music to play to your grandchildren then, but a brutally honest response to what Michael perceived as the rotten core of human (and certainly American) society.
Preferring to take his talents to produce the likes of THAT PETROL EMOTION, THE THE, The YOUNG GODS, et al, Roli Mossiman was absent for the almost accessible `Time Is Money (Bastard)’ 12-inch; his replacement being Ronaldo Gonzalez. SWANS also introduced Jarboe (born Jarboe La Salle Devereaux) on er… screams.
Recruiting further disciples Ted/Theodore Parsons and second drummer Ivan Nahem (ex-Ritual Tension) to the fold, GREED (1986) {*8} was the next instalment in SWANS’ dismantling of the capitalist rock beast. Taking horror-industrial minimalism to new depths via a skeletal soundtrack of stark piano and percussion (example opener `Fool’), the anti-musical, corruptive nature of the power-driven `Money Is Driven’, `Nobody’ and the title track, had their following salivating.
Again utilising the haunting vocals of Jarboe, the HOLY MONEY (1986) {*8} album continued along the same sludge-fest (production) lines. Algis Kizys was bassist in the absence of Crosby, while Gonzalez, Parsons and Nahem played respective parts while they contemplated other avenues. A 4th album in as many years, in some respects tracks such as the morbid `A Hanging’, `Coward’ and single `A Screw (Holy Money)’, were extensions to it’s ungodly cousin.
1987 proved a turning point as Gira and Jarboe created side-project SKIN (U.S. = World Of Skin) as an outlet for their more fragile, acoustic creations; albums such as BLOOD, WOMEN, ROSES (1987) {*8} and SHAME, HUMILITY, REVENGE (1988) {*7} represented a more endearing flipside to the brutality of their day-job band. Focusing equally on Jarboe’s morose but haunting vocal chords, the first of these featured MARC ALMOND’s backing band The Willing Sinners, while Gira’s production techniques created an unnerving soundscape on `1000 Years’, `Blood On Your Hands’, `Still A Child’ and a spine-tingling take of JULIE LONDON’s `Cry Me A River’.
To say said SKIN set number two was anything different would be a falsehood; just that Gira took lead, Jarboe on backing vox. Taken from the same sessions as its predecessor, fun and jollity were not on their minds as the pair complemented a funereal pace on `24 Hours’, `Nothing About You’ and `Everything At Once’; an additional cut for CD was their weird interpretation of The STOOGES’ `I Wanna Be Your Dog’.
Squeezed somewhere between SKIN sets, SWANS’ CHILDREN OF GOD (1987) {*8} found the band showing definite signs of mellowing – nihilistic and challenging though it was. Relenting nothing in power (through 33rpm crooner Gira) and fragility (through Jarboe), the textural quintet (with also Westberg, Parsons and Kizys) fashioned a new rage against the machinations of religion, politics and love. Arty rather industrial in the true sense of the genre, time had given the group a chance to melod-ify noise; check out `New Mind’ (a UK single), `In My Garden’, `Our Love Lies’, `You’re Not Real, Girl’ and a re-tread of `Blackmail’.
The shift was underlined with a surprise acoustic reading of JOY DIVISION’s `Love Will Tear Us Apart’, issued as a single the following summer, and a favourite with indie fans across the boards. A UK-only, FEEL GOOD NOW (1988) {*6} – documenting their 1987 European tour – marked a magical period for a band that subsequently lost Algis and Ted to OF CABBAGES AND KINGS.
Incredibly, perhaps, SWANS signed to corporate giant Uni (M.C.A. in Britain), releasing the somewhat shady THE BURNING WORLD (1989) {*6} as their major label debut. Almost sequestered to have fellow New Yorkan BILL LASWELL at the decks, as well as his compadres Nicky Skopelitis, FRED FRITH, etc as complementary session players, fans of the flighty ones would be forgiven if they’d thought they’d become a doom-laden SISTERS OF MERCY. Still, if progress was finding room for a Jarboe-sung cover of BLIND FAITH’s `Can’t Find My Way Home’, then SWANS could’ve looked to a bright future; best in show `(She’s A) Universal Emptiness’, `The River That Runs With Love Won’t Run Dry’ and `Jane Mary, Cry One Tear’.
The doomed coalition between band boss and big boss didn’t last long into the new decade, Gira and Jarboe (as World Of Skin) consequently forming their own Young God imprint for the release of TEN SONGS FOR ANOTHER WORLD (1990) {*5}; their initial moniker claimed by Brit cock-rockers. In this their “Skinsong”, rather than their “Swanssong”, there were at least interest in their cover of NICK DRAKE’s `Black Eyed Dog’ and a rendition of trad piece, `Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes’.
SWANS’ next outing, WHITE LIGHT FROM THE MOUTH OF INFINITY (1991) {*8} – if one can bypass a self-financed concert album, ANONYMOUS BODIES IN AN EMPTY ROOM (1990) {*6} – rallied a cry to arms for Messrs Gira and Jarboe. Gone was Westberg, and in his place, guitarists Christoph Hahn and Clint Steele, while bassist Jenny Wade and drummer Vinnie Signorelli (ex-Dots, ex-BAD BRAINS), collectively shone on the likes of `Better Than You’, `Song For Dead Time’, `Love Will Save You’, `Miracle Of Love’, et al. Clocking in at over an hour, brutal noise was slightly tempered by hypnotic arrangements, while the brilliantly morose `Failure’ was the Gira we’d come to know and love; `Song For The Sun’ was positively joyous, suggesting there was indeed some light filtering through to the man’s formerly opaque world view.
Still soaring above the cosmic clouds of tomorrow-land (with Kizys back as bassist), SWANS captured the essence of a rock world insane with grunge, by dishing out two sets in quick succession: 1992’s LOVE OF LIFE {*7}, and its live counterpart OMNISCIENCE (1992) {*7}. Both housing some minor gems in `Love Of Life’, `Amnesia’ and `God Loves America’, the fusion between sonic rock and unholy stripped-back codas, identified a distinctive time for a band forever in transition.
Three years in the making as Gira and Co argued their case with Sky Records, comeback set THE GREAT ANNIHILATOR (1995) {*8} continued in a similarly accessible vein, although succumbing to, at times, dreamy, restrained and cinematic movements. Alongside a reinstated Westberg, Parsons had once again signed up, having played a part on their previous set; even the likes of drummer Bill Rieflin (ex-MINISTRY, ex-REVOLTING COCKS, etc.) was booked to embrace Chicago and Wax Trax into the equation. Oft compared to rivals SONIC YOUTH, maybe the latter’s rise to superstardom left SWANS drowning in a swamp of swathing creativity, leaving tracks such as `Celebrity Lifestyle’, `Mother/Father’, `My Buried Child’, `Warm’ and `Mind/Body/Light/Sound’ for stalwart fans, happy at their mind-numbing obscurity.
1996’s double-disc marathon SOUNDTRACKS FOR THE BLIND {*8} could well’ve put the proverbial nail in the coffin, running as it did for over 135 minutes on a “Silver” and “Copper” side. On closer inspection one could see why SWANS thought it worthwhile to re-form later, slow-burning, 10-minute+ epics such as `Helpless Child’, `Animus’, `The Sound’ and `The Final Sacrifice’, the hallmark of the group. Interspersed by taped narratives soon to be in the GODSPEED tradition, industrial and fractured fusion indicated that frustration at not acquiring better sales figures was beginning to mess with Gira’s groove. The man in question also launched a book, The Consumer And Other Stories, through HENRY ROLLINS’ publishing operation 21/3/61.
When M. GIRA and JARBOE found little fame in ’95 with complementary solo sets (DRAINLAND {*5} and `Sacrificial Cake’, respectively), endangered species SWANS had reached their natural conclusion with the release of a concert double-disc round up, entitled SWANS ARE DEAD (LIVE 95-97) (1998) {*8}. In the group’s final days, a touring line-up of stalwart Steele, bassist Bill Bronson and drummer Phil Puleo (ex-COP SHOOT COP) were pitted against 1995 alumni: guitarist Vudi (ex-AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB), bassist Joe Goldring and percussionist Larry Mullins.
Michael resurfaced in April ‘98 with The Body Lovers, a POPOL VUH-like project that including other SWANS, as well as Rieflin and ULTRA VIVID SCENE’s Kurt Ralske. Braver even than his SWANS extremities, NUMBER ONE OF THREE {*7} – with its raft of untitled pieces – was said to also be inspired by avant-garde composers GLENN BRANCA and ARVO PART.
The ANGELS OF LIGHT project – featuring Body Lovers musicians and future SWANS, et al – continued Michael’s sojourn toward normality – albeit with a pinch of irony/pastiche. Songs sung at times rather than spoken drawls of doom, Gira came across as the quintessential folkie on the troubled troubadour-styled NEW MOTHER (1999) {*7}. As close to THE THE’s Matt Johnston, a stark reminder that Gira could mix at any level, ethereal and intimate tracks were arguably, `Praise Your Name’, `The Man With The Silver Tongue’, `Forever Yours’ and the title track.
With a settled group consisting of Gira (vocals/guitars/effects), Christoph Hahn (electric/lap guitars), Thor Harris (dulcimer/piano), Lawrence Mullins (percussion), Dana Schechter (bass/piano), Birgit-Cassis Staudt (accordion/keys), album number two HOW I LOVED YOU (2001) {*8}, was another to question why Gira had taken so long to prove he could er… sing. Tender as night in places, tough as climbing a mountain with bare feet in others, protagonist Gira gripped his listeners without breaking sweat; opener `Evangeline’ a beautiful piece, followed by the strumming glory of `Untitled Love Song’ and the swirling `My True Body’ – both latter pieces featured contributions from singer Bliss Blood and guitarist Kid Congo Powers (ex-GUN CLUB). As a trial to inject funds for their next studio outing, WE WERE ALIVE! (2002) {*6} captured, not only AOL faves but two from his SWANS days.
Young God Records continued in this transition, while also giving light to M. GIRA recordings, including the fresh WHAT WE DID (2001) {*7}, with D. Matz (aka Dan from Windsor For The Derby). Not far removed from his “Angels” sets, the bird had certainly flown on blues-folk numbers like `Quiet One’, the 7-minute `Is/Was’ and the kaleidoscopic `17 Hours’.
Prolific as he was in his SWANS heyday, M. GIRA – as he was billed – focused on delivering anti-folk sets (LIVING ’02 (2002) {*5}, I AM SINGING TO YOU FROM MY ROOM (2004) {*7}, among others), while The ANGELS OF LIGHT pursued their own dank and deep explorations.
2003’s EVERYTHING IS GOOD HERE / PLEASE COME HOME {*8} was one such treasure, a drama-filled theatre of the damned that centred on harrowing tales of the unexpected and love lost. Counterbalanced cohesively between the beautiful and the brash, tracks such as `Palisades’ and `Nations’ to the weird-oid `Rose Of Los Angeles’ and `All Souls’ Rising’, fitted seamlessly without getting out of context.
THE ANGELS OF LIGHT SING OTHER PEOPLE (2005) {*6} stretched singer/songwriter Gira’s fixation to stray away from his 80s/90s excesses; his lyrical charm making him out as a poet in the CAVE/COHEN/HAZLEWOOD mould, if not in gravitas, then by his mountainous CV alone. Remarkable to think that tracks like `Lena’s Song’, the countrified `On The Mountain’ and `My Sister Said’ went unnoticed by all but his peers.
Generating a sense that he might be missing some sonic elements in his music, ANGEL OF LIGHT’s fifth studio set, WE ARE HIM (2007) {*7}, once again compared him to the great NICK CAVE. Offbeat like a sardonic 70s LOU REED in full flow, Gira and Co offered up cosmic cow-punk country via Brooklyn on dirges-versus-ditties, `Black River Song’, `Promise Of Water’ `Good Bye Mary Lou’ and `Sunflower’s Here To Stay’.
As rich as he was in profound albums through his long-standing, 30-year career, MICHAEL GIRA was still struggling to finance projects – and of course, a reunification of his SWANS. In order to achieve his goal, a solo CD/DVD package, I AM NOT INSANE (2010) {*7} – featuring SWANS songs old and new – was offered up to his legion of fans awaiting that special day.
Gira and old cohorts Westberg, Harris, Hahn and Puleo, plus newbie bassist Christopher Pravdica, were all present and correct on SWANS long-awaited comeback set, MY FATHER WILL GUIDE ME UP A ROPE TO THE SKY (2010) {*8}. Taking a leaf – or at least its stem – from his recent acoustic times with AOL, and er… roping in Rieflin again, DEVENDRA BANHART and MERCURY REV’s Grasshopper, Gira excelled with the 2-minute `Reeling The Liars In’ and skewered country closer, `Little Mouth’. Those looking for tracks to tie in the lost 13 years, the pummelling `No Words – No Thoughts’ (at over 9 minutes), shaped most of what was forthcoming. Building to crystallised crescendos, the visceral `Jim’, the volatile `My Birth’ uncomfortably segued into `You Fucking People Make Me Sick’, a Sentinel of a song that grew from the innocent petal that was Michael’s daughter on cameo vox to a disruptive mini-orchestra. Coming across like a cousin of NICK CAVE, LEE RANALDO or Jim Morrison, `Eden Prison’ also escaped from Gira’s suffocating walls of gloom, while the schizoid `Inside Madeline’ beat like its inmate – possibly LOU REED – taking a walk on the wild side of Berlin.
Starring elongated dirges from this studio set and entering fresh outings of new pieces (among a few nuggets; `I Crawled’ segued into `The Seer’), the limited live double set, WE ROSE FROM YOUR BED WITH THE SUN IN OUR HEAD (2012) {*7}, filled a stop-gap for Cygnets ready for further action.
THE SEER (2012) {*8} was a modern-day classic, even though the double-disc clocked in at two hours (had it been released in their heyday, would’ve been triple-vinyl). Repetitive and mantra-like for the most part, brick-by-brick crescendos build without letting go of an almost Kraut-rock rhythm. The intense, SONIC YOUTH-esque `Lunacy’ and `Mother Of The World’ seem almost short in comparison to the drone-fuelled 32-minute title track (and its accompanying accomplice, `The Seer Returns’), plus a couple of clattering closing extensions, `A Piece Of The Sky’ (spotlighting JARBOE) and `Apostate’. Thankfully not out of place, rather an interlude between nihilistic soundscapes, Karen O (of YEAH YEAH YEAHS) gave a solemn vocal twang on `Song For A Warrior’.
Also introduced by chiming bells, mantra-to-manic mood-swings a la `Screen Shot’, SWANS next experimental masterpiece, the equally lengthy TO BE KIND (2014) {*9}, once again ticked all the right boxes. Through ecstatic reviews in all the right journals and an aforementioned Top 40 place on both sides of the Atlantic, genius Gira was all the rage. Howling and barking his way back into Delta blues with a CAVE-cool conscious and a “red right hand” preacher’s condemnation, the feverish `Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)’ – yes, HOWLIN’ WOLF – carried the weight of the Devil on his shoulders. Redeemed by `A Little God In My Hands’, the track’s almost retrospective mid-80s beat might well’ve fitted on to Greed or Holy Money. Connoisseurs of Gira’s GODSPEED-meets-MOGWAI time-travelogues into the 21st century would be comforted to inject a full 34 minutes of `Bring The Sun’ – `Toussaint L’Ouverture’ into their veins; apocalyptic, it recalled The DOORS’ `The End’, er… to the power of 3. Bringing up the rear of disc one, `Some Things We Do’, SWANS signed off by way of the witch coven-mantra. Disc Two opened with the sprawling `She Loves Us’ (all 17 minutes of it), but with all the punk swagger of PiL man LYDON, `Oxygen’ breathed fire alongside other sounds – including `Nathalie Neal’ and the title track – that one’ll get to when Disc One gets lost in time, space, continuum – yeah right!
Quantity over quality once again, SWANS next sprawling two-hour-long double-disc, THE GLOWING MAN (2016) {*7} was as pretentious as it was nihilistic and suffocating. Embracing filmic prog and ritualistic industrial-rock, one had to be a true acolyte before tackling the respective, 20-minute-plus triumvirate of `Cloud Of Unknowing’, `Frankie M’ and the title track. Much more accessible was the delicate CURRENT 93-ish `When Will I Return’ (vocals courtesy of Michael’s wife Jennifer) and the finale mantra `Finally, Peace’.
© MC Strong 1999-2003/GRD-Alt // rev-up MCS Dec2014-Jun2016

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