Review Summary: The first Swans release is quite different than what you would expect from the band that made Filth only one year later.
When you think of the group Swans, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Would it be their early brutal days, their gothic melodicism of the 90s, or their modern hypnotism? Personally, the first thing I would think of would be their masterpiece Soundtracks for the Blind
since it took just about everything they did and spread it around onto two discs. It had the apocalyptic post-rock their modern albums possess, some compositions in the vein of Glenn Branca’s orchestral work, headache inducing noise, their unique brand of gothic rock, and plenty of odd surprises such as dance music and tape looping pieces in the realm of “Revolution 9”. For all those reasons, I would consider it to be their White Album. But, what is their first EP like? We all generally accept albums such as Filth
as their starting points, but what does their first ever release sound like?
Around the late 70s and early 80s, there was a small new scene known as “No Wave” brewing in New York City. Perhaps the best example of this overall sound is the Eno-produced compilation No New York
, which comprised of James Chance and The Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and DNA. Michael Gira has stated that he liked this scene, but at the same time he's said he hated it, but this EP seems to prove the former. Swans
borrows quite a bit from the No Wave movement, such as the use of a saxophone, manic vocal approach, high dose of energy, and the love for both noise and melody. Michael Gira in particular sounds very different in his vocal approach though, by possessing an almost James Chance-esque delivery, instead of the growls or shouted vocals he used on their debut LP. The drumming is quite different as well, with a completely traditional kit, and somewhat conventional approach compared to their later material. The guitars are still likely to drone on and on with a crisp, noisy tone to them, which actually hints at what would later come for Swans. Every song seems to be in a very dissonant key, but because of this, the sound doesn’t differ very much from song to song. All of this equates into a very satisfying slab of No Wave music.
So overall, the debut EP of Swans is a very satisfying one. It’s very different from the rest of their material for the most part, but there are some hints of what was to come to be found inside this release. The songs tend to stick to the same overall formula, which is noisy guitar “melodies”, Joy Division-esque bass playing, Michael Gira’s energetic vocals, and an overall very dissonant sound. Despite not differing from one another though, everything seems to work just fine for them, with little to no faults. It borrows a lot from the No Wave scene, and at times may seem like a bit of an imitation, but there is enough originality in here for it to not be just another throwaway. Check this out if you’re interested in the beginnings of Swans, or even the scene of No Wave bands for that matter, but if you’re looking to get into Swans, don’t start here.