Review Summary: This album makes me feel unholy.Holy Money
, by Swans
Genre: Noise Rock
Release: March 27, 1986
In my experience, albums made from the same recording sessions as its predecessor have a bit of a bad rap. I can’t say I’ve heard many, but I get the impression that they can be quite on even. On one end, there’s such negative examples as Radiohead
, which is more limp than me in my girlfriend’s arms, and on the other there’s Holy Money
, which occupies an important spot in the Swans discography, because it’s betwixt and between two eras in their career, between the atonal, combative, and in my opinion one-note attack on the ears, and the more diverse and experimental approach they’d take from Children of God
onwards. While the latter part isn’t really represented in this album, I opine that it shouldn’t be overlooked, even if I am one of the many people who recommends starting from Children of God
“A Hanging” feels curiously dead with how the dissonant chords hang (no pun intended) for several seconds. It’s a song that sounds like it’s at war with itself, but I mean that in a good way; keyboardist Jarboe’s backing vocals soar, and it almost feels like it’s fighting against the oppressive darkness that typifies Swans’ sound as it was in 1986, which oddly enough only adds to the funereal mood the song aims for. The next son, “You Need Me”, is a piano ballad, and for once it’s a moment Jarboe has completely to herself, begging for forgiveness in such a way that it sounds disturbingly like a potentially abusive relationship. While it’s a reprieve from “A Hanging” that is desperately needed, the song is sadly too damn short at a minute and 23 seconds to be as effective a contrast as it could have been. Fortunately, the next album, Children of God
, would go on to explore the dichotomy between Jarboe and Michael Gira to its fullest potential.
“Fool (#2)” is one of two retooled songs from Greed
, which is only natural given that these albums came from the same recording sessions. It’s the same song, but far more interesting than its original incarnation on Greed because it has more meat on its bones; there’s metallic-sounding percussion that sounds like it was nicked from an Einstürzende Neubauten
gig, the guitar passage from the original song is played once again, but overlaid with the original in a way that somehow doesn’t feel intrusive.
“A Screw (Holy Money)” is, in a way, arguably the filthiest song Swans have yet recorded. While I disagree strongly with the notion that Swans were ever in any way industrial rock, because just because they used a sampler once and strongly inspired Godflesh
doesn’t mean they’re industrial rock, butif any of their songs can
be called industrial, this would probably be it, if only because it distantly sounds like a first draft of “Reptile” by Nine Inch Nails
. The two chord rhythm and electronic drumbeat is certainly quite mechanical, and the song contains some of the most dehumanizing lyrics Michael Gira has yet penned, concerning objectification and selling sex. It’s ambiguous how much choice the subject has in the matter, and the song can definitely be read as being about rape, but given the preoccupation with money, I like to think the song details a porn shoot or a prostitutional transaction, both showing how dehumanizing and demanding the market is and can be in featuring a client so grossly degrading it almost nauseates me.
“Another You” sounds like it could just as easily be on Cop
, but despite being cut from the same cloth I find it holds me interest more than most of Cop
’s track listing. At any rate, it has more progression than most songs from Cop, and indeed more than a lot of early Swans material; the song opens with a harmonica solo that sounds artificially drawn out for the most ominous possible effect, then the song proper begins with bass so heavy and leaden it could crush a Nokia phone, and the way the guitar is employed adds a bit more texture to the early Swans formula. The next three minutes are also typical early Swans in how it mostly consists of aggressive tremolo picking, though it mostly sticks out to me in how it ends, gradually slowing down until the song doesn’t really end so much as stop and sound like a car that’s just run out of gas.
“Money is Flesh (#2)” is another cut from Greed
, and like “Fool” before it I find it far more tolerable on this album as well, though I’m not sure why, the differences are probably noticeable only with headphones. The most I can say is that the mixing sounds slightly better and more balanced, and it has a meatier low end, and apparently that makes all the difference. The album ends with “Coward”, which to my knowledge is the only ‘80s song Swans still plays in the same way that “Haus der Lüge” is the only ‘80s song Einstürzende Neubauten are still willing to perform. In some ways the mixing is shockingly good for this era of Swans. The guitars are especially clear, and also distinctly crunchy; every measure, the musicians can be heard sliding down before playing the chords, and the results sound like a machine trying to crush your head through your headphones, to the point of actually feeling claustrophobic. The drumming is also at its liveliest, with slightly more variety than the rest of the record. Despite all this, this is Gira’s quietest performance, softly speaking the disgustingly self-effacing lyrics like there’s nothing at all odd or concerning about demanding punishment like he does on this song.
Despite demonstrating just how tired Swans’ early sound was at the time, Holy Money
is in my opinion the best thing to come out of their no-wave era. While it has all the same punishing qualities that can be expected from the previous albums, there’s just enough small hints of the band Swans would become to make this the most decidedly interesting album of this era, and with the hindsight that comes with listening to their entire discography, it gives this album especially new context that enhances the experience as much as it makes me want to revisit Children of God
all the more. Holy Money
is the most succinct documentation of the hatred and angst that Swans was all about, and in some way still is; more of the same, but with slightly more bells and whistles and just enough implication of development to have something for people who got into Swans through other, later albums.
Favourite tracks: "Coward", "A Screw", "Another You", "Fool"
Least favourite: "You Need Me"