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Swans is a rather diverse No Wave and post-punk band from New York City. The band was initially formed in 1982 and ran until 1997 with various lineups, and was reformed in 2010. Throughout its history, Michael Gira has been one of two constant members; the other being Jarboe, who was with the band from 1984-97.
The only uniform traits that you could get from their music, if you will, is that the song structures often focus on repetition, instrumentally and/or lyrically, but that they still manage to not get tiresome because of the chaotic nature of their work. This is especially apparent on their earliest work.
They are primarily an underground act, and the one song that the public (might) know best would be their cover of Joy Division's Signature Song Love Will Tear Us Apart. They've also released two other singles, 11 studio albums, 9 live albums, 7 compilation albums, 11 EPs, and have made four music videos, but these aren't exactly well known.
They got their start with the EP of the same name in 1982, followed by their LP debut Filth in 1983. The latter is known for its harsh noise-rock and Industrial influences, and very well could be considered a Ur Example for Grindcore. (For the record, Mick Harris, a drummer for Napalm Death, was describing the sound of Swans to a friend in 1984 and used the term "grind"; therefore, Swans could also be credited for inspiring the term "grindcore".)
Once Jarboe joined the band, Swans slowly moved away from the brutal aggression of Filth and the 1984 releases of Cop and Young God, opting for slightly softer (but just as insane) music, beginning subtly with the 1985 Time Is Money 12", continuing with the "money" albums (Greed and Holy Money, 1986) and culminating with Children of God in 1987.
Following Children of God, Gira stated that he was tired of Swans being affiliated with the brutal noise of the first four LPs and also felt that the audience had expectations that he probably wouldn't fulfill. Going on into the 90's, Jarboe began to have an even bigger role in the band and softer elements, including classical instrumentation and, in later years, vibraphone.
With the surprise hit on US college radio of Love Will Tear Us Apart, Universal/MCA offered Swans a record deal. Gira described it as this:
I've worked so hard all my life. At 15, I was digging ditches in the deserts of Israel, and I put myself through college painting houses. I never saw any money from any of our records. So by the time I finally got that carrot dangled in front of me, it was like, at last I can make a living at what I love to do.
They took the offer and released The Burning World in 1989. It featured more melodic pop melodies, but the lyrics, just as with anything before it, were often dealing with depression, death, greed and despair, but were sung, as opposed to chanted or shouted. Troubles with Uni/MCA, though, led to 1991's White Light from the Mouth of Infinity, which combined the earlier hard rock influences and the later pop melodies, making for a rather complex record in comparison to earlier work.
Later on down the line came Love of Life, the EP/single Love of Life/Amnesia, and 1995's The Great Annihilator, possibly their most accessible album. Eventually, though, Gira decided to break up the band, and released an epic double-album (one of their most highly regarded albums of their career) Soundtracks for the Blind and went on a world tour. In 1997, it was widely considered that Swans was dead; a release in 1998, called Swans Are Dead, shared this point of view. Jarboe moved on to a successful solo career, while Gira started a more folk influenced band Angels Of Light.
In January 2010, their My Space page was changed to display "SWANS ARE NOT DEAD", and Gira released a solo album on Young God Records (their record label for their later career and now), entitled I Am Not Insane, to raise money to record the new Swans album. In September of 2010, this was realized with the release of My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To the Sky.
The current lineup is as follows:
- Michael Gira - guitar, vocals
- Christoph Hahn – guitar
- Thor Harris – drums, percussion, vibes, dulcimer, keyboards
- Chris Pravdica – bass guitar
- Phil Puleo – drums, percussion, dulcimer
- Norman Westberg – guitar
The band exemplifies the following tropes:
- Anti-Love Song: "Blackmail" is a particularly subtle and creepy example.
- Big Name Fan: Gira counts as a Big Name Fan of Lisa Germano, since he signed her to his Young God Records label because he enjoyed her music.
- Black Sheep Hit: Love Will Tear Us Apart, and, for the most part, the majority of their 90s work.
- Careful with That Axe: On occasion.
- Extreme Doormat: Unfomfortably deconstructed and even zigzagged in their early songs. Special credit to "You Need Me", which manages this in less than two minutes and five lines.
- Genre Roulette
- Indecipherable Lyrics: "Young God" is primarily slurred with some yelling. You can't make out more than ten words, even with the lyrics in front of your face... Though comprehension is ultimately irrelevant.
- Lighter and Softer: The Burning World.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Practically a trademark style.
- Metal Scream: Some of their earlier work had this, such as the song "Young God".
- Mind Screw
- Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: They bounce all around the scale; their acoustic stuff (such as "Love Will Tear Us Apart" or "Failure") probably counts as a 1 or 2, whereas most of Cop comes in at a hard 9 or higher. And then there's stuff like Love of Life in between at about 4, and other stuff like Soundtracks for the Blind or "Look At Me Go" that just sits outside of the scale entirely.
- Murder Ballad: Many of Jarboe's songs.
- Post-No Wave Baroque Industrial Art Pop
- Serial Killer: "Young God" and "Killing for Company" are about Ed Gein and Dennis Nilssen respectively.
- Silly Love Songs: Few and far between, though when they do appear, the results are pretty impressive.
- Spoken Word in Music: Strangely averted, as Gira's singing voice is so deep that on some songs you'd think that he's just monologuing the whole thing.
- Perishing Indie Voice: Also averted.
- Stalker with a Crush: "Volcano".
- Surreal Horror: The musical equivalent, especially on Soundtracks for the Blind.
- Title Drop: Holy Money has "A Screw", which (in both versions on the album) contains the repeating line "Holy money, holy love..."
- Write What You Know: If stuff like "Failure" is to be believed, Gira has had a seriously screwed up life.