By Christopher Nosnibor
Swans have come a long way over the course of their ever-extending career. And while their latter-day output redefines ‘immense’ and ‘intense,’ and the lineage back to their early day remains clear, it’s a fair assessment that you’d be hard pushed to find any musical experience more visceral than their earliest works.
For me, it’s personal. I could say that I’ve heard more albums than you’ve had hot dinners without it being a gross exaggeration. I’ve always leaned toward the darker, heavier side of things. But for all that, I would still say that Filth stands as the second heaviest album I’ve ever heard (the heaviest being Swans’ second album, Cop). Let me qualify ‘heavy’ here: there have been countless metal albums that are doomy, sludgy, droney, abrasive almost beyond imagination. Let’s be clear here: Slipknot, Marilyn Manson, Metallica are not heavy. They’ve got melody and tunes in there, and are as much about presenting an image as they are about music. Bands like Sunn O))), Godflesh, they’re heavy. But these bands owe a significant debt to early Swans. Swans have never confirmed to any style of fashion, and from the outset ploughed their own deep and most singular furrow. All the evidence is here in this truly colossal release.
Their debut EP, reappearing here after being omitted from the previous double CD reissue in 2000, crawled out of NYC in 1982. Untitled and housed in a sleeve that gave nothing away, it was stark and nihilistic, it was ugly and it was noisy in a clattering, dissonant post-punk way, but didn’t really give any indication of what was to come.
Filth, on the other hand, was relentlessly brutal; the battery of percussion dominated the atonal guitar noise and the vocals, largely spoken or drawled, were nihilism epitomised. Originally released in 1983, time has done nothing to diminish its impact. And while ‘industrial’ has come to have myriad connotations, Filth (here freshly remastered for CD after last year’s remastered vinyl edition) sees Swans draw on the confrontational and ugly aspects of Throbbing Gristle and sculpt them into something more rhythmic and more focused. The shock aspect of Filth isn’t in its celebration of serial killers or its embracing of the strange, but in the bare 500 watt bulb it shines directly in the face of the everyday, placing into painfully sharp relief the mechanics of capitalist society: the degradation and dehumanisation of long hours in menial work, the dignity-stripping nature of the production-line, the petty vindictive power-trips of those on the only partially elevated steps o workplace and social hierarchies.
‘Stay Here’ is built around a bass assault that slams hard against the solar plexus. Clattering drums, yawning guitar noise and a wall of sonic violence provide the backdrop to Gira’s snarling vocals, whereby he repeats ‘be hard… flex your muscles’ until his throat bleeds from exertion. Five minutes into the album and the chances are you’re already begging for mercy, but there is none and nor will there be. There’s no melody, no comfort here, just the musical equivalent of a heavy beating. ‘Blackout’ is a 45BM crawl, a trudge into the abyss. Feeling worthless, hate yourself and your life? Listening to this will amplify those negative thoughts: you’ll realise just how utterly devoid of merit you are, that you’re nothing but flesh and bone being dragged through the wheels of industry. Death can’t come soon enough. ‘Power for Power’ is the soundtrack to your soul being crushed, forever. ‘Right Wrong’ is as agonising a cacophony as you’ll hear, the squalling shards of Westerberg’s guitar firing in all directions against dirty grunts of bass and a tumult of drums as Gira barks ‘Satisfy the dog!’ over and over.
Listening to Filth is painful. Sonically, it offers no respite, no comfort, no soft surfaces or comforting choruses. Instead, it sets the emerging blueprint of what would become the defining feature of Swans’ material: simple chord sequences, repeated endlessly until they’re bludgeoned into the ground. The music is a metaphor, an instrument as blunt as a baton that hammers your soul into submission.
More than merely music, Filth offers a world view, a dissection of capitalism and western social order, as the lyrics to tracks like ‘Power for Power’ attest:
Use sex for control.
Use power for power.
Use hate for freedom.
Take control and keep it.
Don’t let go.
The simple, direct declarations reduce the complexities of social interactions to their basest forms. Violent, bloody scenes proliferate as Gira explores themes of violation and annihilation from the perspective of absolute debasement, when there’s nothing left to lose.
Body to Body, Job to Job collects studio outtakes from the period between EP and Cop and a handful of live cuts. It hurts. The first track, ‘I’ll Cry for You’ is harrowing, anguish seeping from between every dissonant note as Gira growls venomous self-loathing. As tracks like ‘Mother, My Body Disgusts Me’ imply, this is about exorcism, about purging, relinquishing all sense of dignity and self and surrendering to absolute debasement at one’s own hands.
For those who’ve discovered Swans post-resurrection, this will all come as a horrific shock: if you think The Seer and To Be Kind were heavy, this early material will likely induce a heart attack. Longstanding fans will already know all of this, and will likely be skipping forward to the previously unreleased live material dredged from the band’s vast archive. Some of the live cuts featured here – namely the set recorded at The Kitchen, NY, circa 82-83 – featured on the previous 2-disc reissue, and captured the band at their most eye-wateringly savage.
‘Living Arms’ is a track that’s never previously seen the light of day. The recording is muddy, bass heavy – as much the band’s sound as any fault with the audio – and is typical of Swans circa ‘82. Gira brays like a slain beast against a percussive tempest and howling atonal guitar noise. ‘Howling Sheet’ is an alternative version of ‘Red Sheet,’ which featured on Body to Body but failed to make it as a studio work. This version, recorded at CBGB, is slower, and indicated the transition from their 1982 sound through Filth and onwards toward the grinding trudge of Cop. It’s the guitar that howls, and the three people clapping afterwards makes it: the track’s inclusion isn’t about fan favourites and arena glory days, but essential moments in the evolution of a truly unique band.
The version of ‘Big Strong Boss,’ also recorded at CBGB, is barely recognisable in relation to its studio counterpart. It’s a nasty, messy, slab of noise, and the early version of ‘Clay Man’ from the same show is again radically different, as well as significantly faster, than the version fans will know from Cop. ‘We’ll Hang for That’ always stood out as one of the tracks on Body to Body was perhaps wrongfully abandoned, and this second live version is sharp and savage, its snaking, churning bassline to the fore. There’s chatter, sparse clapping and the chink of glasses as the noise dies away and the bar calls time.
The three tracks from 1984, recorded in London and culling tracks from Cop and the Young God EP are the most gut-churning of all. The recordings are murky, presumably on account of the organ and microphone-damaging volume of the show. The eight-and-a-half minute ‘Why Hide’ sounds like a protracted death scene, and Gira sounds like he’s dragging his entrails around the stage as they hang from a slash across his stomach. That much pain. That much anguish. It’s a truly harrowing ordeal.
This perhaps doesn’t sound like the most positive of reviews, but you’d be mistaken. This immense package is a timely reminder of Swans’ bleak, gut-churning origins, providing some much-needed education for the later arrivals and some tasty rewards for the longstanding faithful. That it sometimes feels like an endurance test is precisely the point: Swans are a band that yield something unsurpassably special to those with a stomach for their work. Above all, the early works of Swans go beyond music and reach into the very soul of the most desperate of human conditions. They articulate in the most intense and cathartic of ways emotions that mere words cannot express. And that’s the bottom line on why this is an absolutely essential release.
Filth is released by Young God Records