Swans founder and sole constant Michael Gira was stern and adamant when he announced in 2009 that his intention to revamp his then-defunct flagship project was no mere grab at cheap nostalgia. Indeed, it was easy for his audience to be cynical following the flurry of classic post-punk/indie rock acts that decided to reform throughout the 2000s, most of them nakedly and blatantly grabbing at every dollar to be squeezed from their post-mortem fame. But there’s something about Gira’s rather prickly integrity to suggest that, of all the musical figures to really mean their dismissal of cheap opportunism, he was one to believe.
And indeed, as it turned out, Gira was astoundingly astute in his motives for restarting his most-celebrated endeavor after using the end of the 1990s and bulk of the 2000s for his comparatively pastoral Angels Of Light project. His first studio album under the Swans name since 1996, 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, was a stunning return to form for the songwriter, adding a distinct aggressiveness and hypnotic doom that many would perhaps say had been sorely missing during the bulk of the Angels years. Garnering even further, and perhaps more intensified, accolades than this new Swans record were the expansive tours the group has since embarked on, explosively intrepid and physically purifying performances that offered irrefutable proof that this was indeed a genuine Swans reformation, and one that went above and beyond what any such expectations may have carried when it was announced. Without question, in an era of increasingly detached digital artificiality, including in the realm of often meticulously pre-programmed live performance, Swans’ return to the stage was a visceral, unsettling, and intensely cathartic experience for all involved, with shows lasting for well over the two-hour mark at severe volumes while the band ran through bracing new material and a few impressive re-imaginings of some classic Swans moments for good measure.
As anyone who has thus far witnessed Swans live in this new formation can no doubt attest, a live album of the recent tours would be foreseen as an inspired move. So it came to pass that this anticipated Swans live double-disc package entitled We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head sold out in less than 24 hours when it was announced to the band’s mailing list, leaving many understandably frustrated and disappointed in the wake. (It doesn’t help that eBay flippers are asking for prices well above $100 at this moment.) Regardless, its intent as a fundraiser for their upcoming studio release The Seer is an impressive method on the band’s part, and becoming of their staunch principles, Gira and company have put a lot of care into this project, crafting a beautifully-recorded, exquisitely-packaged set that stands as the obvious next best thing to actually seeing the band in the flesh.
Edited together so that the running more or less mirrors the gestation of one of the band’s recent sets, the collection begins with the infamous static drone with which the band has opened all of their shows, this penetrating overture presented undiluted for over 15 minutes before leading with heart-stopping aggression into a particularly fierce take of “No Words No Thoughts” from My Father. This entire performance in itself is beyond masterful, the gradually building and churning hum of the band’s instruments melding into a violent and impassioned tantrum of histrionic tension. There’s not a second of sound wasted during this risky venture, each intentional false start emphasizing the precise bludgeon of guitars and percussion, all articulated with utmost meticulousness.
Much like this rendition of “No Words,” all of the material from My Father stands head and shoulders above the studio recordings, which, while outstanding in their own right, lacked this particular unsettling intensity showcased on the stage. The thrust accented on We Rose is explicitly befitting of the band’s earliest work and its cementation with the somber melodicism at the core of these songs precise and seamless. “Jim” from My Father similarly bridges this road, tying together the distinct 80s and 90s eras of Swans, the more dour, almost Gothic songcraft associated with a record like 1995’s The Great Annihilator finding a bedfellow in the pounding, staccato, metallic backbone reminiscint of 1984’s Cop.
The stylistic similarities with the band’s earliest work, or at least everything prior to the band’s rather controversial 1989 major label jaunt The Burning World, is further expressed with the appearance of some notable classic Swans songs. “Beautiful Child” from Children Of God welds a stripped-down sinisterness that was arguably tempered in the studio by some of the melodramatic synth flourishes and Jarboe’s chillingly ethereal backing vocals. Likewise, the same album’s “Sex God Sex” is presented sans noticeable tweaking, save for perhaps a more spare overall persona, the lack of studio embellishment highlighting the raw severity of its base. A mantra to masochistic spirituality, Gira’s proclamations of “Praise God” on “Sex” carry on a distinctly unsettling fanaticism, his voice resembling that of an end-times proselytizer reaching out to his damned. Likewise, “Your Property” from Cop is treated to an almost unrecognizable makeover, with its industrial sadism replaced with unusual seething calm and contempt.
The one fully-fleshed, unreleased piece,”The Apostate,” is driving and almost anthemic, a burning churn of slinky EBow’d guitar, motoristic riffs, ominous bells, and some cryptic references to, of all people, Lady Gaga. Obvious parallels to The Great Annihilator’s “Celebrity Lifestyle” may spring to mind, and indeed, while there is a certain gothic resonance to the affair, the piece is explicitly in keeping with the singular vehemence exposed in this new phase of Swans. Another unreleased track, an introduction to the as-yet-unfinished piece “The Seer,” has an almost Krautrock-derived propulsion, a satisfyingly compelling persona to ride next to the band’s trademark pummeling doom; that it leads into the Young God EP’s “I Crawled” further drives home Gira’s theory that his new concerns are following a straight path from the most austere corridors of his past as a musician.
Takes on My Father’s “Eden Prison” and “Little Mouth” round out the live material, both pieces finding the aforementioned grandiose expansion implicitly intact. (“Little Mouth” in particular sounds hauntingly fresh as tied with the unreleased and cacophonous “93 Ave. B Blues.”) Following these pieces, the limited edition of this live collection ends with a collection of stripped-down acoustic demos of various songs set to appear on the band’s upcoming studio album. In spite of Gira’s explicit recorded plea preceding these songs that these versions are never to be shared outside the owner’s personal space, they feel impressively developed and professional, each piece embodying an almost orchestr sparseness that stands as gorgeous in its own right. While these may not be what Gira has in mind for their eventual fleshed-out studio takes (Gira narrates before playing each piece exactly how he envisions the finished full-band versions of each of these songs), they are an illuminating window into Gira’s unimpeachable talents as a songsmith of stark vigor.
As it stands, this is an essential document of Swans in the midst of their successful resurgence, a collection that finds the band captured as an untarnished entity that derives endless power from Gira’s songwriting and presence while also exhibiting an animalistic dynamism keeping this far from being a glorified solo affair. It’s unfortunate that this collection was unable to reach all of those fans who missed out; no mere souvenir, this deserves a wider audience and, thus, a more permanent release.
[Update: Great news. A full release of the live album, sans the demos, is expected in April through Young God.]