Top 10 Swans Songs

Swans Songs

Photo: Nick Helderman [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]

Of all the bands to come out of the underground New York No Wave scene in the early 1980’s Swans have been one of the most influential and enduring. With a career spanning over forty years and they continue to tour and record in various incarnations to this day. The group’s only consistent member has been the founder, rhythm guitarist and front man Michael Gira, although guitarist Norman Westberg features prominently on every Swans album save one starting in 1983, as does keyboard player Jarboe, who has been a consistent member of their lineup since 1985’s Children of God.

Other notable members include drummer Phil Puleo, bassist Chris Pravdica, percussionist Thor Harris and steel guitar player Christoph Hahn. Their music is characterized by harsh, dissonant guitar and a heavy, plodding industrial rhythm paired with Michael Gira’s snarling vocals and bleak, nihilistic lyrics, although later releases are more varied and include more melodic vocals, keyboard parts and acoustic guitar as well as some songs where Jarboe sings the lead vocals. Here is a selection of the top ten Swans tracks.

10. God Damn the Sun

Released in 1989, this song is atypical of most Swans material, with acoustic guitar and string sections. Gira’s vocals are low, but melodic and the song is reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s later work. The lyrics are about loneliness, depression, addiction, suicide and lost love. It is one of their most melodic and confessional songs, showing that Michael Gira is just as capable of writing tender, quiet music as he is heavy and harsh noise.

9. Failure

From White Light From the Mouth of Infinity, this song is slow, with acoustic and electric guitar augmented by synth parts and it lacks a drum beat or the heavy rhythms that characterize their earlier songs. Gira speaks the verses and sings the chorus low and melodically. The lyrics are poetic and about the pain of failure, depression, aging and death with minor key guitar and piano helping to construct the melancholic atmosphere of the song.

8. Stay Here

This track is from an early Swans album, 1983’s Filth and is one of the first to feature longtime guitarist, Norman Westberg. Stay Here showcases their roots in the no wave scene, with noisy and seemingly random guitar parts paired with a heavy, industrial beat and Gira’s shouted and screamed vocals sound as though they owe as much to heavy metal as to no wave. The lyrics match the confrontational vocal style with Gira shouting “flex your muscles” repeatedly and with more force until the words become unrecognizable demonic howls.

7. Weakling

Another song from Filth , Weakling has a heavy, industrial sound to it, with the harsh guitar and repetitive drums giving the track a very mechanical feel. Gira’s monotone, no wave influenced vocals recall the earlier musical explorations of James Chance and the Contortions. It has a heavy rhythm and the dissonant, atonal noise guitar played by Norman Westberg that was typical of the band’s early noise and no wave influenced releases. Gira’s vocal delivery is savage and it grows in intensity as the song progresses.

6. Where Does a Body End

This song is atypical for Swans, with an acoustic intro, augmented by unintelligible, echoing vocals and Michael Gira sings an actual melody rather than shouting or singing in a monotone. The rhythm is lighter than in most of their songs and the guitar is melodic and less harsh. Jarboe adds backing vocals and creates a sort of harmony with Gira’s vocals, which are still quite dark and nihilistic, despite the song’s more typical nature. The lyrics evoke bleak and apocalyptic imagery.

5. New Mind

Released on their critically acclaimed 1987 album Children of God, this song makes use of the repetitive rhythm common to multiple Swans songs but the guitar is more structured, playing chords and adding to the rhythm rather than being a lead instrument. This was the first album to feature keyboard player, Jarboe, and her dissonant and minimalist synth adds a new dimension to Swans typical song format.

Gira’s vocals are clear and monotonous and he makes use of call and response style chanted vocals. The lyrics explore such themes as god, sex, religion and sin, with Gira chanting “save your soul/damn you to hell” repetitively. The end of the song features no vocals but a swirling vortex of synth noise rising over an increasingly chaotic rhythm.

4. Sensitive Skin

This song is from their 1982 debut EP, Swans, and the plodding rhythm and harsh, chaotic guitar creates a dark soundscape rather than conventional chords and riffs that shows off the bands No Wave roots. Gira’s vocals are mixed low and often hard to make out, adding to the overall disorienting effect of the song. The rhythm section is incredibly repetitive while the noisy, metallic guitar seems random and almost improvised. It brings to mind their no wave predecessors and contemporaries Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Mars and Sonic Youth.

3. Beautiful Child

This song is also from Children of God and it is something of a departure from their early music. With a near-psychedelic and doom laden intro with synth and noise guitar the song changes gears partway through, as Gira’s trademark snarled vocals come in along with their typical repetitive drum beat, but with religious style, chanted choir vocals and what sounds like brass instruments. The lyrics are typical of Children of God in that they reference religion and sin. Jarboe’s influence on the direction of the band can be heard clearly on “Beautiful Child.”

2. In My Garden

Yet another track from their masterpiece, Children of God, this song is radically different from the majority of Swans earlier material, featuring a repeating, quiet guitar part and gentle but mournful piano playing from Jarboe. Jarboe, rather than Gira, sings on this track and her whispery, melancholic vocals create a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere that peaks with an instrumental synth section at the end. This song is one of the first to feature a vocalist other than Michael Gira and its quiet sadness stands in stark contrast to their heavier, more industrial sounding songs.

1. Power for Power

Another song from their 1983 release, Filth , this is the archetypical Swans song. Heavy, dissonant noise guitar from Norman Westberg and a pounding rhythm accompany Michael Gira’s confrontational shouted vocals and dark lyrics referencing power, money, and pain and exploring the human relationship to power. The refrain is “power for power’s sake” chanted repetitively over a proto-industrial rhythm and the bands roots in the New York No Wave and underground scenes are clearly displayed in “Power for Power.”

Author Jack Blare is a published poet whose work can be found on Amazon.

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