Review Summary: "There's been a lot of upsetting, very upsetting things, that I can't allow to happen anymore. I have to be like a soldier and march away."
The ability to make music that is truly lasting and moving is something few artists possess. Michael Gira has more of this ability in his left ring finger than most other musicians have in their whole bodies. The man's been all over the map, making some of the most relentless, brutal music ever made, crossing over into melancholic acoustic post-punk territory, experimenting with drones and loops, and commandeering one of the most misunderstood groups in music with such impact and force that the sounds they produce draw you in like a magnet, slowly dragging your further and further into the abyss without so much as a struggle. Soundtracks For The Blind is all about this feeling.
For 141 harrowing minutes, Michael Gira and his resident sidekick Jarboe toy with the listener, expanding their musical horizons and experimenting with previously unused and near-revolutionary musical techniques. This album has an atmosphere so dense it almost opens another dimension to the listener. It's amazing and truly applause-worthy how Swans made 2 and a half hours of music so engrossing and original. This album will never let you move so far as a step away from its crushing tonalities and winding, truly horrifying ambience and heart-stopping dissonant noise. With compositions ranging from the orchestral and bombastic ("Helpless Child") to the slow-building and emotionally burning ("The Final Sacrifice") Swans truly outdo themselves with Soundtracks For The Blind, a farewell letter from a band that accomplished so much within so little time.
The album is split between Michael Gira compositions, Jarboe compositions, and previously unused recordings that were layered and spliced on top of one another to create heart-stopping rhythms and tunes, such as in "The Beautiful Days" or the heartbreaking "How They Suffer". There's always something going on in this record, whether it be moody, steadily building droning ambience, warm keyboards, Gira's signature hit-the-floor-octave drawl, or the eye-opening, triumphant swirls of electric guitar, Soundtracks For The Blind will engulf you in everything that it's offering, never letting a single second of its bleak canvas go unnoticed. Even when the compositions stretch to uncanny lengths (the best example of this point would be "The Sound") Swans know how to keep it interesting. The mind-numbing repetition on the extended tracks is carried out to the point where the motifs and layers are exciting and glorious, then tedious and overlong, and all of a sudden when they explode into a new section of the song, they become the most epic and triumphant thing the listener has ever heard put to record.
As a whole song, "The Sound" is the best example of this, a 13-minute post-rock nightmare complete with pounding, tribal drumbeats, unearthly ambience backing the whole groove up, Gira's upsetting, melancholic vocals and otherworldly bursts of dynamic and emotional glory. However, nothing encapsulates this feeling better than the final section of the perfect "Helpless Child". The last seven minutes of this orchestral masterwork are breathtaking in every which way, whether it be the powerfully strummed electric, the hypnotic samples tying everything together, or the punch to the gut of a percussion arrangement, accented by the steady crescendos at the end of every phrase. The album feeds off of moments of euphoria in this way; the slow fade-in of the acoustic on "Live Through Me", the bombastic dynamics of "All Lined Up", the dark yet uplifting opening to "Secret Friends", and the slow descent of "Red Velvet Wound" from an airy dream pop tune into an ambient night-terror are all examples of how Soundtracks is such a dangerous album for the mind, one so full of hope yet so dragged down by sorrow and fear that it is unflinching in its depictions of these emotions.
The album occasionally offers a slight break from the madness, with "Blood Section" and "Fan's Lament" both being quick, memorable tunes easily recognizable by their light guitar hooks and foot-tapping beats. However, Swans keeps the listening experience of Soundtracks mainly about keeping one on their toes, and boy do they succeed. As I stated earlier, there is nothing in this album you will see coming, and 98% of it will affect the listener in its own special way. The moment when you will realize how special this album is and/or is going to be will probably be halfway through "I Was A Prisoner In Your Skull", as it ebbs and flows from a genuinely disturbing ambient intro to a twisting post-rock section, and back into the unknown with one of the most unsettling voice samples I've heard.
Jarboe's father was an FBI agent-after his death, she inherited a number of his private tapes, many of which were used on the record. The lonely, depraved voices accompanying the soundscapes are just as integral to the album as the instrumentation is. "The Beautiful Days" would not be complete without the inscrutable yet inspiring sound bite at the end, which reminds the listener that things are only disgusting and repulsive if that's the way they choose to see it. "How They Suffer" would not be the harrowing experience it is without the heart-wrenching interviews Michael Gira and Jarboe conducted with their father and mother, respectively. "Her Mouth Is Filled With Honey" is easily the most horrifying thing on this record, and the barely audible entity speaking to you only amplifies this terror. "Minus Something" features the same man who talked at the end of "The Beautiful Days" attempting to "be like a soldier and march away", and not let himself be pushed around so easily. But that's the thing about Soundtracks-this album pushes you around like a schoolyard bully, and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. This is what makes Swans' final effort from their first lineup so compelling, and why I think it is absolutely essential to anyone who claims to enjoy music.
I cannot give this album anything less than a 5. It is one of few albums I think truly lives up a to a classic standard, and is one of the most memorable and ridiculously twisted listening experiences I've ever embarked upon. Buy this album now or forever hold your peace, as I believe it is something everyone should hear.
Recommended Tracks (asterisk signifies best track on disc 1 and disc 2: 2 asterisks signifies best track on whole thing)
I Was A Prisoner In Your Skull
The Beautiful Days
All Lined Up
How They Suffer
Her Mouth Is Filled With Honey
The Final Sacrifice*