With the announcement of their 15th studio album Leaving Meaning today, I decided to rank and write some shorter reviews for each of Swans' past studio albums, from their debut Filth, to their most recent 2016 release, The Glowing Man. I haven't listened to all of these albums yet, so I'm going to start from Filth and work my way through the entire discography leading up to the release of their upcoming album, which I will give a full review of. Its extremely difficult to rank a band that has undergone so many drastic transformations, between stylistic developments and changes in line ups, so in the end it will mostly come down to personal preference. I'll review each of these one by one and release them on this page leading up to the release of the new album.
Leaving Meaning is set to release on the 25th of October, and you can listen to it's first single It's Coming, It's Real here.
Swans have had an interesting stylistic trajectory over the last 40 years, and listening to Filth in comparison to their later discography is a perfect example of this. This is an extremely heavy and ugly album. It’s aggressive, unpredictable and genuinely unsettling to listen to, with some of the most vitriolic, disturbing and brutal sounds I have ever heard. It’s clear this thing was made on a budget, with some limitations, such as the song Big Strong Boss ending abruptly because the band had reportedly run out of tape at the time, however despite this the album has some pretty incredible production, not to mention some extremely abrasive and interesting instrumentation. A lot of the songs have this really off-putting rhythm to them which make it extremely difficult to place whether or not they are being swung or not, and Michael Gira’s ever cryptic lyrics and harsh performance is the driving force and heart of the project. This is one of Swans’ shortest albums, and probably their least subtle, but there is a lot to admire here. Some notable standouts are the opening track Stay Here, Power for Power, and Right Wrong. The brutal and relentless performance from Gira on top of the violent and surprisingly tight instrumentals are what makes Filth a mesmerising experience – something that persists throughout Swans’ discography no matter what genres they shift between.
Something you’ll notice about Swans’ discography is that they seem to make albums in pairs stylistically. Greed and Holy Money are thematically a continuation of each other, as well as White Light from the Mouth of Infinity and Love of Life. Similarly, Cop is very much a complementary album to its predecessor Filth, sharing the same slow, heavy, abusive instrumentals and unsettling lyricism. I do prefer Filth as it has a more interesting sense of rhythm than Cop does, and for the most part this album does just feel like more of the same as Filth. This isn’t really a huge issue, but considering the intense multiple metamorphoses the band would undergo in the following decades, this does make Cop feel a little less significant in the shadow of its predecessor. On its own however, this is another great, brutal no-wave album by swans. Half life is an excellent opening track, followed by Job, which has echoes of Jim Morrison’s spoken word passages, which were a heavy inspiration for much of Gira’s work. For the most part, this is a slower album than Filth, but is still incredibly abrasive, violent and gritty. Cop is more of the same for Swans, but at the time it solidified them as one of the heaviest and most unique bands to emerge from the no-wave scene in 1980s New York.
Greed marks Swans’ departure from the no-wave genre they had been born from, leaning in this album towards a much slower, more melodic sound. Straight away in Fool we hear piano being used as the primary instrument for the first time in their discography, with Gira also quite obviously focusing far more on the lyrical content of the music this time around, rather than the relentless aggression of their previous two albums. That’s not to say that Greed is necessarily stripped back; the instrumentation is still shattering, however there are some notable additions that Swans are adding to their sound during this era of their discography. The piano on Fool, the drum machine and choir harmonization on nobody, and most surprisingly, the use of synth horns during the closing track, Money is Flesh, all have Swans experimenting much further with the industrial sound than the two previous albums. This album feels like a hint of what’s to come much further along in the Swans discography, and although it lacks the focus of the band’s previous albums, it is still an extremely important milestone in their progression. Particularly, the production on Greed is by far the best the band has produced so far. The layering of Gira’s vocals in Stupid Child is a notable highlight; one that shows the birth of an integral part of the Swans’ signature sound in the following decades. For this, and many other reasons, this album really feels like the beginning of Swans’ constant metamorphoses, and although it is not one of their strongest albums, it is still an extremely important aspect of their history.
Holy Money (1986)
Holy Money is once again, very much a sister album to Greed, even more so than Cop was to Filth. This album even has the inclusion of Fool #2 and Money is Flesh #2; the former being a reworking of the song of the same name from Greed, and the latter being more or less identical to it’s twin. For the most part, the incorporation of these two songs actually works better in the context of this album than they did on Greed.
This is mostly because Holy Money is a better album than Greed was. It is more experimental, better produced, and more engaging. In fact, it’s Swans’ best album in their discography so far. The tribal-like drums at the end of A hanging are phenomenal, and their transition into You Need Me is gorgeous, and marks the introduction of one of the most notable members of Swans during the 80’s/90’s: Jarboe. Although Jarboe doesn’t appear past this track in the album, she adds a further variety to the ever-expanding sound that Swans was becoming. A sound that is further explored with the reworking of Fool #2 and A screw (Holy Money), and Another You, the latter two of which continue to heavily experiment with industrial elements such as synths and drum-machines. However, Coward is possibly the most interesting song on Holy Money, with the Michael Gira’s spoken word prose juxtaposed against his violent shouting, strongly reminiscent of what the band had been doing in their first two albums. This song seems especially important stylistically for swans, as it represents the progression of their style up until this point, as well as further hinting at what they are yet to delve further into. This is once again a very short album which is both significant within the band’s discography, as well as being an extremely great album in of itself.