Swans rose out of the No Wave scene that produced Sonic Youth, Suicide, and DNA, among others. Their first album appeared in 1983, and was titled Filth. The name was a fitting description of the music, as the record just sounded nasty. Steeped in abrasive sounds, textures, and lyrics, their debut made you feel like you were listening in a sewer. The onslaught continued with Cop the following year. Swans had perfected a stance that would prove to be a blueprint for industrial music a few years later. But their dark vision and plodding rhythms became almost suffocating, and the future of the band seemed uncertain.
That was when leader Michael Gira did something that would become customary in the years to come. When the music began to show any signs of stagnation, he threw out the old rules and changed everything. By opening up to all sorts of new influences, the group was able to move forward in several different directions. Classic Swans albums like Children Of God and Holy Money followed, confirming their status as fearless trailblazers.
The original incarnation of Swans ran from 1982 to 1997, when Gira decided to retire the name. In reconvening the group, he is emphatic that it is not a reunion; in fact he is almost obsessive about it in the press releases. But the new CD, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky sounds very much like the Swans I have always known.. In fact, it sounds exactly like what I would have expected from them in 2010, whether the name had been dormant for the previous 13 years or not.
The name Swans has meant something to fans for a long time now, and their latest more than lives up to the legacy. The nine-minute opening track “No Words/ No Thoughts” sets the tone. The cut begins with a clanging, tribal din that slowly gives way to sounds that are epic in dimension. All of this sets the stage for the remarkably hypnotic musical voyage that comprises the bulk of the song.
Swans are using a lot of folk music influences this time out, which adds an interesting element to the proceedings. When I say folk music, I am talking about the real hardscrabble old stuff of Harry Smith’s Anthology Of Folk Music, not the Kingston Trio. “Jim” seems to bring up the ghost of Leadbelly‘s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” while “Reeling The Liars In” is a deceptively simple protest lament a la Woody Guthrie.
The latter half of My Father reminds me a lot of the latest by Current 93, Aleph At Hallucinatory Mountain. The music and the lyrical content both convey a tone of searching, and ultimately of redemption. “Eden Prison” is an especially notable example. The sheer aggressive power that Swans are noted for is never far from the surface, at times appearing in short bursts to punctuate things. On “You Fucking People Make Me Sick” the group just lets it rip, using everything they have to build a song of nightmarish intensity.
There are a number of guests appearances, but the oddest one has to be from Devandra Banhart. This is a guy who I never would have expected to find on a Swans record, although he did do a great job.
My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky is a tour de force, as all good Swans albums have been. The many different musical styles the group incorporate give it something of a travelogue feel, a tour of their collective musical tastes in a way. It is one I will certainly be listening to again, and one that I recommend to anyone who has an interest in music that exists a little outside of the mainstream.