A ferocity that overcomes the unavoidable thinness of the no-budget production.
Swans, incredibly, currently occupy a more prominent place in the wider musical consciousness than they ever have, all while pursuing a form of music that resolutely avoids mainstream appeal. Even so, the present-day sound of the band—all throbbing, industrial raga that pushes everything from tortured bagpipes to subterranean funk out to half-hour cataclysms—is, if not any softer, far tamer than the original group. In a fit of nostalgia, or maybe just a typically bullish desire to shake things up, frontman Michael Gira has reissued the band’s 1983 debut, Filth, as a 3CD behemoth containing outtakes and live performances from the era to provide context for the no-wave nightmare that inexplicably emerged as maybe the best rock band of the 21st century.
What’s immediately apparent on this remaster is how thin the recording sounds compared to more recent albums, with their deep aural space that reverberates with sonic waves. But equally evident is a ferocity that overcomes the unavoidable thinness of the no-budget production to display a band that had no handle on anything except bottomless rage. “Stay Here” opens the album with guitar riffs akin to oil pumps rising metronomically only to plunge back into the earth. The lyrics sound like a workout VHS half-melted in a fire, each line nothing more than a quick burst of machismo like “Be strong/ Be hard,” with an errant, surreal command like “Stick your hand in your eye.” With a different arrangement, the lyrics might be wry, but Gira barks them without mirth, and the molasses-slow arrangement trades snotty punk speed for the sound of some kind of reckoning.
That energy sets the tone for the record, which lacks the stylistic diversity of subsequent Swans LPs in favor of mere differences in tempo. Gira may have spat at the no-wave label at the time, but there’s no disguising the influence of New York’s most belligerent art scene on the formless anger. Nonetheless, in a glimpse of the band to come, the noise occasionally produces glimpses of some compositional acumen. The guitar strings on “Blackout” are so loose to lower the pitch that they take on a kind of rubber-band twang when plucked, while the interlude “Freak” introduces tape loops into the fray for added pandemonium. “Gang” erupts from the mouth of hell itself as clanging instruments tumble slowly down a hill and Gira, the Charon guiding these damned souls, commands his followers to attack an assailant. Lyrically, Filth, like much of Gira’s early writing, is locked into an endless provocation, filled with unending allusions to violence, rot and rape. These feed into Gira’s overall desire to shock and confront, but they date the material worse than the production, tying this megaton music, so full of promise and even instant noise appeal, to the titillated fantasies whose disturbing quality is mitigated only by their obvious immaturity.
The second CD on the set, a repackaging of the old tape-splice compilation Body to Body, Job to Job, is an intentionally scrambled affair comprising errant tape loops, abandoned demos and scratchy live recordings, may surpass Filth by redirecting focus entirely on the sound of this amoebic outfit. Reduced to out of context clips that de-emphasize composition and lyrics in favor of the constant roar of white noise, even the tedious fronting of new tracks like “Whore” are buried by the din. Gira compiled this CD as he was entering the twilight of Swans’ first phase, and it shows an artist with a better grasp on both structure and artistic aims than the nasty young nihilist who produced the band’s debut. The set also lets you hear some of those early album cuts as they were meant to be heard: overloading speakers in a fetid, cramped venue. Check the two Cop tracks that come from live shows, where even a muddied recording cannot tamp down the wall-crumbling might of the band sending riff after cascading riff into a small space.
Uncoincidentally, the highlight of this reissue is all the new live material released from 1982-84. The most shocking aspect of a 24-minute performance from New York’s The Kitchen is that, occasionally, you can hear people actually applaud the sludge pouring out of the band’s amplifiers whenever it stops long enough for people to catch their breath. “We’ll Hang for That,” a cut from a CBGB show, layers squall on top of a mid-tempo metallic chug in a kind of missing link between the shapeless conflagration of the Filth and Cop material and the sculpted terror that would follow. And given Swans’ constant state of evolution, it’s no wonder that the final tracks, recorded in London in 1984, show a band in far greater control than the ‘82 and ‘83 gigs, especially on future Young God EP staple “I Crawled,” which manages in its slouch toward Bethlehem to achieve the sense of evil that Filth occasionally tries too hard to convey. The music presented in this collection often sounds like a preemptive parody of Swans’ most extreme moments rather than the first instances of them, but, when it connects, the visceral impact of this fearsome band is evident from the start.