His name was Michael Gira and when he was fourteen he ran away from his father while they were on a business trip in Germany. He spent the next several years of his life panhandling his way across Europe, getting stoned, seeing Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd live, and eventually heading for Israel (where he would be kicked out). Somehow Gira wound up in Los Angeles where he entered the Otis Art Institute, but dropped out before collecting his degree and got involved with L.A. / NYC punk/no-wave scenes, participating in Hermann Nitsch aktions and eventually founding (in 1982) a band named the Swans.
It would probably be a gross understatement to say that the Swans had an influence on the New York underground of the Eighties — at least as big as Suicide had had a decade or so earlier. The comparison is rightfully earned. Gira admired Alan Vega enormously, and the sound the Swans developed drew inspiration from the same impulses: go to the edge of your experience and bring something back. They did, and the results have stood the test of time in ways that most popular music simply can’t.
The first Swans album was titled Filth and had a black cover with only a pair of clenched jaws visible. The image fit — the music was a snarling pitbull that latched itself around your leg and bit to the bone. Ugly, atonal, pounding, primal stuff — the kind of thing that Nick Cave had been throwing down with the Birthday Party, but if anything even noisier and more willing to abandon itself from charisma to make its points. If a Black Sabbath record was like regular heavy metal played at half-speed, this was like a Sabbath record at half-speed. Put on any Soundgarden or Godflesh record and you can hear the still-resonating echoes of the early Swans; put on the doom/stoner metal of today and you can hear the Swans, too.
Filth was followed up by Cop, which was if anything even more bloodthirsty and ugly. The sleeves sported Gira’s writings, which delved into interior nether realms of pain and submission, documenting minds falling apart from their own pathetic justifications and souls rotting from the inside. European audiences loved it, but the Swans remained relatively anonymous at home — which accounts for why they had to “cross the pond” and record with K.422/Some Bizzare in England to be heard at all in quantity (a label notorious for short-changing their artists). Their live concerts were, if anything, even slower-motion executions of the same themes, like witnessing a blood-drenched massacre happen underwater.
An ardent fan named Jarboe — an aspiring singer and bodybuilder — came on board for the group’s next two EPs, Greed and Holy Money (which features many of the same songs in multiple versions, so it made sense when the two were reissued as one CD later). The grinding, pounding sound of before was now merged with Emulator III samples and slightly glossier production. A savage song like “Time is Money (Bastard),” the closest thing the group had to a dancefloor hit, shared space with “Blackmail,” a lovely piano-laden tune with Jarboe’s breathy, soaring voice evoking a tale of sadomasochistic dependency.
“Blackmail” was even more of a portent than anyone realized, for it also showed up on the group’s next album and the focus of this review, Children of God. An article in Forced Exposure compared Children of God to Fushitsusha’s Double Live album, both in terms of its scope and its musical impact. Children of God is only about half the length of Double Live, but it carries every bit the same amount of wallop. A more accessible comparison would be Pink Floyd the Wall. CoG is similarly ambitious, if not more so, and given what the Swans were about, almost inevitable.
Throughout the course of their music the Swans concentrated on how power is used and abused by people and authorities, how people enslave themselves to things and enslave others and how both power itself and the feelings that go with it are inflated to the size of idols. With Children of God, they made all of the above as explicit as possible by dealing with the biggest example of all of the above: religious faith and submission under God. The album never speaks from the point of view of God himself, of course (with one exception); it concentrates solely on the worshippers. The title itself is a clue: not God per se, but his children, are the focus.
On the cover, front and back, we see Jarboe and drummer Ted Parsons (later of Prong) wearing mask-like face paint, and throughout the song God and his minions wear multiple masks. There is the thundering evangelical arrogance of “New Mind,” where Gira bellows “The sex in your soul will damn you to hell,” contrasted only a few songs later by Jarboe’s “Blood and Honey,” where a sexual temptation of Biblical qualities (right down to the buzzing oboe and Middle Eastern melodies of the song itself) wraps itself around you. Every imaginable facet of the experience is here, from the intoxication of religious ecstasy itself (“Like A Drug”) to the seductive promises God (or is it Satan?) offers to put the minds of the troubled at ease (“Trust Me”) to searing sexual self-abnegation (“Sex, God, Sex”). And, of course, a version of “Blackmail,” the stillness and quietude of which only show up the cruelty in the lyrics all the more. The experience culminates in “Blind Love,” written from the point of view of a dead Christ reaching out from the grave with implacable hands... but then it ends with the soaring title tune, in which God himself is the father of the joyous and the strong — and in a way, no longer the most important thing.
Most people assumed Children of God was either a joke in bad taste or a sign that Gira & Co. had gone off the deep end. But CoG was not a joke and not a pious rant, as many of Don McLean’s later records had become (where the singer of “American Pie” embraced cardboard sermonizing). The band took the subject seriously, and made music that was lush and thunderous when the material suited it. Even if you weren’t of a religious bent — and this review comes from the point of view of a stone-cold atheist — the totality and completeness of the album’s vision was unmistakable. As with any great art that contains religious themes, like The Brothers Karamazov, the reverent and the apostate alike can find what they seek in it — a portrait, or an affirmation, or a damnation.
The Swans have recorded a great deal of other material since. The pseudo-bootleg live album Feel Good Now, documenting their European tour with material from CoG, contains performances of absolutely searing quality rendered almost unlistenable by bad recording. Despite this, it is at least as important as the album itself, if only because there are moments of sheer beauty and genius that can be heard through the fog. For a while the only way to hear that particular record was as a used CD or LP that changed hands at extortionistic prices, but it’s since been reissued in a budget edition and is well worth checking out. Their one major-label project, The Burning World (for MCA/Uni), was produced by Bill Laswell and in retrospect is nowhere nearly the failure many people made it out to be. It is, in fact, a lovely album, shimmering with many of the touches that would later become keystones in future records, but it’s currently out of print.
White Light from the Mouth of Infinity was the first album in the final phase of the Swans’ evolution, combining — successfully — every previous motif the band had used and expanding on them all immeasurably. Love of Life, The Great Annihilator and Soundtracks for the Blind continued in the same vein, at which point the Swans as such ceased to exist. Jarboe and Gira continue to record, however, both together and separately, and Gira’s own Young God label has become an incubator for many striking releases by other people. Gira and Jarboe’s own solo work was presaged by two duo albums under the collective name World of Skin; the first of these (which is excellent) has been repackaged with Children of God as a 2CD set and is more than worth the money. Several other live albums exist, including one whose title is assuredly unforgettable and a nifty clue as to the Swans’ oft-buried black humor: Public Castration is a Good Idea.xamazon-alt=21QWSD8PV6L