When I first started seriously listening to music--you know, expanding beyond the perimeters of my mom’s CDs and what was playing on the radio--I really didn’t listen to anything any more challenging than what I was listening in the first place. You know, it’s that feeling when you’re twelve, and you think that new Korn album is heavy as fuck
and completely opposite of what all those other lesser losers are listening to. It took me about a year, after buying albums by the Pixies, then Sonic Youth, then Radiohead, then Sigur Ros, to finally somewhat expand what I could stand musically. It was about a year ago when I thought that hell, if I can listen to albums by Sonic Youth and Kayo Dot, I can probably listen to fuc
king anything and “understand” it. I thought my musical perimeters had stretched as far as possible.
Then I discovered Swans.
Swans made a decade-and-a-half career out of making some of the most unsettling, disturbing, and downright freaky music ever to be recorded. Ranging from the noise explosions of menacing screams and all-encompassing feedback of their early monsters to the startling emotional post-punk of their early 90’s to the creepy ambient and post-rock-inspired music of their final years, Swans just blew me away. Of course, as always when someone discovers something extreme and just plain hard to take in, I didn’t listen to Swans again for four months. But as with all great albums, I felt drawn to give the band another try, and when I did, I was blown away once again, only in a slightly different sense.
But first, we need some band history. Swans were formed all the way back in 1982, and their deafening and abrasive guitar-led live shows were embraced by New York’s no-wave scene, until Brian Eno’s No New York
compilation basically tore that scene apart. Swans survived, however, and eventually moved (one could even say matured) from their previous style of minimalist noise to slightly tamer post-punk, with Michael Gira’s emotional lyrics and singing, even landing a major label release. The band continued to progress, and explored other styles of music such as ambient, post-rock, and the avant-garde, bringing them to their final album, a double-disc monolith titled Soundtracks for the Blind
Soundtracks for the Blind
can’t really be characterized into one consistent sound, mainly because the album is so incredibly diverse, ranging from epic-length orchestral compositions (“Helpless Child”), to creepy, desolate, ear-harming noise (“I Love You This Much”), to ambience (“Secret Friends”) to choppy lo-fi indie rock (“Fan’s Lament”). To put it simply, Soundtracks for the Blind
runs the gamut, and it’s easy to see why so many different musical styles could put this album on the fast track for inconsistency. But it doesn’t. In fact, all these tracks manage to tie together, and all strike the same theme of hopelessness and oppression.
But with any album that has twenty-six tracks, there’s bound to be some filler, right? Right? Actually, uh, no. Soundtracks for the Blind
keeps you in awe for throughout the entire album, never letting you get too far away from its infernal grasp, and has plenty of rewards for those who can manage to make it through the end of the album, such as the obvious standout of the album, “The Final Sacrifice”. Beginning with the rising swell of violins, the track has you thinking that it’s going to continue to rise and build up like an epic post-rock song, but it quickly condenses to a mesmerizing bass line and swirls of softly strummed guitar, crashing cymbals, and more violins. This instrumental swirl becomes larger and larger about to completely break open, but, of course, the music dies down again, and enters Michael Gira. Gira moans softly with the subdued music, but instead of the instruments entering another slow dynamic, Gira’s voice does, becoming more and more like a tormented scream, before dying down once again and fading. The constant build-ups and the presence of suspense is enough to haunt your dreams and give you some phantom physical fatigue.
But Soundtracks for the Blind
is one of those pretentious old double albums, and the sheer length and scope of the album makes this no more than a casual listen, and a daunting one even then. For those who do tackle the album in one sitting will be very grateful for the variety of the material here. Hell, it seems like this is just one big compilation of great bands: “I Was a Prisoner in Your Skull” conjures up feelings of Godspeed, “Helpless Child” sounds like a collaboration between Joy Division and Glenn Branca, and “Animus” could as well be an Orb cover. Some tracks are so different that they could be considered revolutionary: “All Lined Up” takes the creepiest of noises and splices them into one track, barely forming a cohesive song if it wasn’t for Gira’s heavily effected vocals somewhat tying everything together. And I bet you’ve never heard anything like the feedback-layered dance track of “Volcano”, which is weirded-out mightily by sitar strums, drums that rotate from going in fast-forward to reverse, and female vocalists Jarboe’s nearly fragile falsetto.
Soundtracks for the Blind
has the misfortune of being the last album Swans ever released, so this newfound style could never actually be perfected. And with its variety and unfocused direction--all tracks carry the same theme, but sometimes the tracks just don’t flow well, like having the float-y, poppy “Red Velvet Wound” right before the completely serious, mind-crushing “The Sound”--this album sometimes feels like it’s just the blueprints for a better, completely cohesive classic. But what we got in the end is still damn good, and one of the better albums of the Nineties. This album may be forgotten today, but we should probably try to change that.