Soundtracks for the Blind (1996) is a vast double album from the end of the career of Swans, a band I knew nothing about until I read a discussion forum of the Canadian band Godspeed You Black Emperor!, as they were then called (they’re now called Godspeed You! Black Emperor), wherein Swans were cited as a reference point.

So after copying it from my mate Paul who once worked with someone who once drummed with Swans, I eventually got a copy from Michael Gira’s own website, younggodrecords.com. At that time all the Swans stuff was out of print (it’s since been rereleased). Gira has kept going since the band’s demise, manning the website and playng live with Angels of Light and on his own. And a lovely gent he is too. This is, I think, one of my favourite albums. I’m not sure I can recommend it to many people, though. I value friends and family more.
The first thing to know about Swans is that you’d need to be in the full of your health to listen to it. Their earlier output, Filth, Cop/Greed, Holy Money et al, are dense slabs of boomy, bassy noise which doesn’t reward anything as much as bloodymindedness in the listener, but on occasion the beauty of what Gira and his bands (there were frequent line-up changes) could produce. The typical Swans song featured a drone, lots of crashes and either the doomed baritone of Gira or the wailing of his erstwhile vocal partner Jarboe. Sort of like Sugarcubes fans preferred Einar or Bjork , or Go Betweens people liked Grant or Robert, either vocalist occupied the mind—to me it’s all about Gira. In fairness he’s the major creative force anyhow. And if you like Sugarcubes or Go Betweens, please don’t take the preceding sentence to mean they sound anything like Swans. Swans would make these people cry. This is, after all, the band that gave us ‘God Damn The Sun’.
A couple of attempts were made at making Swans more accessible, notably on 1989’s Burning World, a record properly produced and marketed (depending on who you believe) which sank and was deleted. I found a secondhand, water-damaged copy in a store in Redwood City, CA. It too has since been rereleased on Young God as Forever Burned, but I think it’s deleted now, too. For the record it’s not very successful—this is not a band you can shave down and present to the teenyboppers. By the mid-90’s therefore, there was quite the bit of disillusionment in the Swans camp. They put out an ep, Die Tur Ist Zu in Europe, then their final album, Soundracks for the Blind.
Soundtracks is built around a combination of three types of sound: the angry, punkish screaming stuff; the brooding, majestic throb of Gira’s increasingly epic and longwinded pieces; the sounds and taped dialogue with ambient, droney backgrounds. The main thrust of the record lies in the three main pieces: ‘Helpless Child’, an English version of a song sung in German on Die Tur… as ‘Ligeti’s Breath’; ‘Animus’, a ten-minute nightmare in drone, and ‘The Sound’, which has to be heard to be believed. Between those three pieces lie all sorts of paranoid people on phone messages, out in public or in the quiet of their own minds, ranting and raving. Disturbing stuff, but not without its charm. It is an amazing experience for someone who likes Godspeed to hear that they wear such a huge Swans influence, especially as Godspeed get so much credit for innovation in sound, but at seven mins into ‘The Sound’ Swans literally lay out a primordial Godspeed: crashing, cacophonous music, doomed but uplifting; the definition of the hope espoused by the Canadians at every turn. Godspeed pretty much copied this on their third release, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, on the ‘Monheim’ track.
The music has a synaesthetic quality, a density and texture to it. At times it’s icy; some parts are almost clammy or sticky. It’s never less than intense. Listen to the second track on the first, Copper disc of Soundtracks…, ‘I Was A Prisoner In Your Skull’, for all three parts of the Swans schtick. It begins from the drone which ended the first track, the weirdly-titled ‘Red Velvet Corridor’, before 1.20 when the machine noise takes over, building to a crescendo of agonised, digitally looped screams and yells, the drums riding the mix to a climax, only to be replaced by the strangest monologue, the voice listing reasons why “you… are more fucked up than me”. This monologue eventually gives way to a series of bells or gamelans or whatever, fading into the next adventure, in this case ‘Helpless Child’’s fifteen-minute chasm. Another left turn into even more strangeness.
So when Gira sings above a slowly plucked guitar about ‘blackening innocence/with sugar and opium’, and the sympathetic mix of drones, keys and drums slowly gathers around his words, the crash will follow soon. This is a band who, having drilled themselves into the ground, are now taking their time. A collection of pieces in a collage which leaves nothing really declared by the album’s conclusion two plus hours later, except the mood set at the get-go, tells the story of the end of Swans. The various failures (their own title for the compilation which they subsequently released), body fluids and pieces of performance art offal which lie around would soon be mopped up with the terrifying Body Haters/Body Lovers project, a collection of noise which makes this one sound like Backstreet Boys. But when they recorded this collection, there was trouble at’ mill. When they toured it was worse—by then, as the live album which followed testified, Swans are Dead.
Although I have pretty much all of Gira’s output Soundtracks is the one I come back to. There’s an expanse to it, a depth of intensity and a scope which never fails to elicit a reaction. Although the relentless despair can make the album something of an ordeal, there’s a release to it that only the most cathartic music can achieve. Swans are clealy bleeding to death with this record and it’s quite impossible to remain unaffected by the album’s many highlights.

They’re touring this autumn, as are their protégées Godspeed. What price a double header? I’ll bring the sunblock.

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