By Charlie Leach (@YungBuchan)
Formed in 1982, the band Swans have been a mainstay of underground music for decades. Mainstay member and band leader Michael Gira fronts a band that has moulded from genre to genre, redefining themselves album after album, but still maintaining an individual sound, one that is at times harrowing, and at others quite serene, mesmerising and beautiful. Having released fourteen studio albums, the band have stamped their own blueprint on music. Their debut studio album, Filth, marks the first steps of a band about to shape decades of underground music.
Filth came towards the end of an underground music and art movement rooted in New York City in the seventies. Called No Wave, the movement was seen as a rejection of the more fashionable film movement, New Wave. People involved in the group despised the name; many bands and artists stated in interviews that the movement was named by music journalists, and not so much by themselves. No Wave took the poverty, strife and misfortune that was surrounding New York City at the time and presented it for show on stage, in all its glory.
Swans’ debut certainly marked the most extreme and heavy direction the genre would go in. With only Gira and Jonathan Kane (drums) featuring from their first release (the self-titled EP), this album featured two drummers, and Gira playing bass. Additionally, future serial Swans member Norman Westberg appears on the album, marking his debut with the band, giving the band his iconic droning, wailing guitar riffs.
The opening track Stay Here serves as this album – and the band’s – mission statement. A monolithic, trudging, panic inducing rhythm section consisting of bass guitars pounded by presumably Gira and Harry Crosby and a continuous, march-like drum pattern ignite the album. Gira’s first lyrical punch on the track command the listener’s attention, acting like a drill sergeant barking orders: “Be strong, be hard. Resist temptation. Stick your hand in your eye. Close your fist. Resist”. From this opening gambit alone, Swans’ commercial debut takes No Wave into its most violent extremes.[youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5ZkzUGKQzo%5D
The instrumental onslaught devolves as the track lurches on. Swans have gained a reputation for repetition. However, as shown in this first album, this is not repetition for repetition’s sake. The chaos develops through excellent craftsmanship and relative subtlety (for early Swans, at least). Further into the song, what sounds like droning tape loops start to envelop the song, while Westberg’s repeated strumming of his guitar acts as jarring spurts of fired medium frequency into an already thick malaise of sound. Additionally, the chaos is added to by a ride cymbal that falls in and out of the song’s time signature and tempo, seemingly arriving and quickly disappearing when it pleases.
And it is this chaotic-yet-meticulous drumming that serves as a subtle yet quite brilliant feature for the rest of the album. Right Wrong swerves and flounders throughout its runtime, guitars notes bleeding and wailing throughout. But it is the drums that truly take centre stage. The true prowess of Kane and Roli Mosimann (second drummer) come to the fore: blisteringly quick snare rolls punctuate the song, almost spewing out into the song after the staple pronounced marching drums that have dominated the album. And as like the opening track, what seem to be spontaneous, anger-fuelled cymbals crash into the song periodically, the drumming emulates the tormented back and forth emotions of Gira’s character in the song. The syncopation between the drums are most evident on track Power for Power. The drums themselves seem to be just a few measures away from each other, which combined with the theme of the track helps evoke imagery of being drunk on power. Their rhythms occasionally align with each other at various points during the song, preventing the track from truly falling apart, staying on the precipice of a breakdown.
At the centre of the track is Gira’s vocals. He is in atypically boss-like mood. Here, he bites at the listener to embrace their vices, and take control: “Use sex for control. Use power for power. Use hate for freedom. Use money for cruelty. Use money for cruelty”. This fight for power of all things is in spite of personal relationships, as he iterates later in the runtime: “He was your friend. She was your friend. They were wrong, they were wrong. They were wrong, they were wrong. Turn against them”. These themes of indulgence, sex, power and all around despair are ever-present on the album, and more than add to the violent, sadistic, misery filled album. However, there are instances during the album in which the lyrics can become repetitive and not all very effective. One example of this is on the song Big Strong Boss. The repetition here of two worded refrains do fall flat, due to the seemingly arbitrary and tiresome nature of the delivery, and the lyrics themselves. It could be said that the track does suffer from having to follow on from the behemoth Stay Here, one of the highlights of the whole album.
However, repetition that is used to great effect on this song is the bombarding, blaring bass guitar. An ever-present on most of the album, the two basses play single atonal chords, in most cases punctuating every downbeat with a blast of sludge like noise. On the track Thank You, the bass plays a more rhythmic beat, almost leading to something remotely capable of inducing dance.
With their first studio album, Swans swung fist first into underground music, presenting a cacophony of noise, anger and hate. Sometimes bordering on “fun”, this album marked a way-point for the development of a much revered band, and serves in its own right as a hallmark of the No Wave art movement. Without this iconic album, music would not have a sound that has emanated throughout the decades.