Along with Sonic Youth and lesser known bands like Rat At Rat R, Swans represented a darker side of New York music scene in the 80s. While their style changed somewhat as their career progressed further into the 90s, they still stayed true to image – mainly, obsession with all kinds of taboo subjects (tied to Michael Gira’s fascination with work of Marquis De Sade and Jean Genet).
Part of Swans reputation was built around brutally loud live shows, some of which led to police involvement and subsequent shutdown of the venue. It is told that loud volume was one of the factors that contributed to Swans demise.
Swans were also known for an ever-changing line-up which was primarily centered around Michael Gira and Jarboe. Some of the musicians that worked with Swans throughout years include Anton Fier (Golden Palominos, Electric Eels, Pere Ubu), Bill Bronson (Gunga Din) and Roli Mosimann (Wiseblood).
The earliest Swans line-up included Gira, Jonathan Kane and Sue Hanel. Hanel’s work with the band can be heard on “Body To Body, Job To Job” compilation and she was described as “the most fearsome guitarist in New York” by Kane.
Hanel was eventually replaced by Bob Pezzola and saxophonist Daniel Galli-Duani was added to the line-up. Thus, as a quarter they released/recorded debut self-titled EP, which came out on Labor label in 1982 and sounded very different from their later work. Some pointed out that their early sound is akin to less satirical version of Birthday Party, while others compared their work to that of bluesman Howlin’ Wolf – “aggressive beyond words”, according to critic Ned Raggett.
Their first full-length was 1983 “Cop”, a record reminiscent of No Wave movement, as well as work of other New York bands like Mars and Sonic Youth (who released “Confusion Is Sex” and “Kill Your Idols” EP around the same time). Filth was also the first album to feature Norman Westberg (Sulfur, Foetus Corruptus), who would go on to appear on the majority of their studio albums.
1984 brought full-length “Cop” and “Young God” EP, both of which were re-released on one CD in 1992. At that time, Swans consisted of Gira, Westberg, Harry Crosby and Roli Mosimann and “Young God” was considered to be one of their best early releases. Justin Broadrick from Godflesh mentioned “Young God” as one of the records that changed his perspective on music.
During 1986 “Greed”, vocalist/keyboardist Jarboe joined the band, which resulted in significant change in band’s sound – much of their work was still ominous, but not as brutal as its predecessors. “Greed” also featured Algis Kyzis, a prominent member who would go on to work with them as a near-constant member.
1986 also brought “Holy Money”, which featured Jarboe on lead vocals and featured acoustical elements – harmonica, acoustic guitar and piano can be heard on such tracks as “Another You” and “In My Garden” . The band also introduced religious themes, another deviation of sorts from their early work.
In the late 80s/early 90s, Jarboe and Gira recorded three albums as Skin / World Of Skin – 1988 “Blood, Women, Roses”, 1988 “Shame, Humility, Revenge” and 1990 “Ten Songs For Another World” with much of the material on those records resembling acoustic versions of songs from their “Children Of God” album.
1989 “Burning World” came out on major label MCA and featured production from Bill Laswell. This resulted in yet another shift in band’s sound – much of lyrics were sung, not shouted/chanted, and while lyrically it was built around themes of greed and despair, it also sounded closer to conventional pop records than much of earlier band’s material. Gira, however, stated that he was disappointed with the record and a choice of Laswell as a producer was a mistake. “Burning World” also featured a cover of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”.
Much of their 90s work explored further marriage of noise and pop – 1991 saw release of “White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity”, 1992 brought “Love Of Life” and 1995 “The Great Annihilator” became their most straightforward and accesible release.
Their swansong was 1996 double album “Soundtracks For The Blind” – an extremely diverse record which featured anything from field recordings to ambient soundscapes. 1998 “Swans Are Dead” gathered their live recordings from the mid 90s.
Both Jarboe and Michael Gira continued with musical projects after Swans dissolution – Gira runs Young God Records and records with Angels Of Light, while Jarboe is recording solo.
- Young Gods were named after one of their songs
Jenny Wade (Timber)
Jonathan Kane (Circus Mort)
Larry Seven (Beautiful People LTD)
Roli Mosimannn (Wiseblood)
Toby Dammit (Angels Of Light)
Vinnie Signorelli (A Storm Of Light, Blood & Time, Foetus In Excelsis Corruptus Deluxe, Foetus Symphony Orchestra, Lubricated Goat, Of Cabbages And Kings, Unsane)
Vudi (American Music Club)
William Rieflin (1000 Homo DJs, Acid Horse, Angels Of Light, Blackouts, KMFDM, Lard, Ministry, Pailhead, Petty Tyrants, Pigface, R.E.M., Revolting Cocks, Shipwreck Scat Chorale)