After years of pursuing Angels of Light and recording and producing a diverse roster of artists for his Young God label, Michael Gira has decided to reconvene his legendary group Swans. As he says: “THIS IS NOT A REUNION. It’s not some dumb-ass nostalgia act. It is not repeating the past. After 5 Angels Of Light albums, I needed a way to move FORWARD, in a new direction, and it just so happens that revivifying the idea of Swans is allowing me to do that. “
The core group constituting Swans for this phase is Michael Gira / guitar / voice / mendicant friar act (original swans); Norman Westberg – guitar (original swans); Christoph Hahn – guitar (mid period swans and most angels); Phil Puleo – drums, percussion, dulcimer etc (final swans tour and most angels); Chris Pravdica – bass and gadgets (flux information sciences / services/ gunga din); Thor Harris - drums, percussion, vibes, dulcimer, curios, keys (angels, now also with Shearwater)…
This new album is as powerful and diverse as anything Gira’s done, in Swans or otherwise. It opens with the epic, soul-crushing (bone crushing?) No Words/No Thoughts, but quickly veers to more pastoral terrain, then on to ever-ascending mono-tonal grooves, a filmic-folk idyll featuring Devendra Banhart on lead vocal that abruptly shifts to cataclysm, then on to more airplane-taking-off ascensions, art songs, and more lethal sonic pummeling. In short, this is the new SWANS album, a significant advance from where Swans left off and as challenging and emotionally demanding as ever.
Increasing frustrated by the (self imposed) constraints he’d set for himself in Angels of Light, Gira decided that the direction he wanted his music to take would be more appropriate under the moniker of the group he started in 1982 and retired in 1997. Though the new album retains an attention to detail in orchestration, and an underlying sense of melody on many of the songs, there’s a deliberate shift towards sonic intensity, relentless, maniacal rhythms and alternately abrasive and soaring waves of electric guitar, qualities those familiar with the always-shifting sonic approach of Swans over the (now first) 15 years of its’ existence will recognize. This record immediately feels like Swans but is also obviously unique and moving into new territory.
Here’s what Gira says about the moment he decided to reconvene Swans:
“There was a point a few years ago during a particular show when I was on tour with Angels of Light, with Akron/Family serving as the backing band. It was during the song The Provider. Seth’s guitar was sustaining one open chord (very loudly), rising to a peak, then crashing down again in a rhythm that could have been the equivalent of a deep and soulful act of copulation. The whole band swayed with this arc. Really was like riding waves of sound. I thought right then, “You know, Michael, Swans wasn’t so bad after all...” - ha ha! It brought back – in a flood – memories, or maybe not memories, more a tangible re-emersion in the sensation of Swans music rushing through my body in waves, lifting me up towards what, I can only assume, will be my only experience of heaven. It’s difficult – and probably pointless – to try to describe this experience. It’s ecstatic, I suppose – a force of simultaneous self negation and rebirth. Really, I probably only experienced this a handful of times to such an extreme extent during the entire 15 year history of Swans. All the elements have to align perfectly, and you can’t force it, though you might constantly strive for it. I don’t mean to be too lofty here, but it’s a fact. I’m talking about my own experience of the music (though I’d hope people in the audiences along the way might have experienced a similar episode). When I ask myself if I believe in God, I start to say NO, but then I remember that sensation, and I’m not so sure. So I want more of that, before my body breaks down to such an extent that it won’t be possible any more. So I’m doing it. “
Since the musicians live in different places on the planet, the idea of rehearsal for the recordings was both impractical and expensive. They had all heard the material in demo form, so were basically familiar with the material. In order to both allow time to work out the songs as a band with a distinct personality, and to ensure freshness in the performance, they recorded the basic tracks for one song per day over a period of 12 – 14 hours each day.
Once they’d reached a peak, having hashed the songs over (and over) and reconfigured them from their original demo form into something unique to the group, the engineer hit record. Basic overdubs were done at the end of the same day.
Additional subsequent overdubs were done later and guests included: Bill Rieflin (long-time Swans and Angels of Light contributor and currently drummer for REM and Robyn Hitchcock).
Bill played piano, synthesizer, organ, acoustic and electric guitar, drums/percussion and more; Grasshopper (Mercury Rev) – Mr. Grass played a swarm of mandolins; Devendra Banhart -
Devendra sang the lead vocal – accompanied by Gira’s 3 ½ year old daughter Saoirse – to the song You Fucking People Make Me Sick.
Swans will begin touring late September and will continue touring in 2 to 3 week stints for the next 18 months.