You'll stand proud, face upheld
And I'll follow you, into Heaven or Hell
And I'll become, as a girl
In the desperate kingdom of love.
Absinthe Day, the Fénéon way…
He had bet he could drink 15 absinthes in succession while eating a kilo of beef. After the ninth, Théophile Papin, of Ivry, collapsed.
In a dive in Versailles, the ex-priest Rouslot obtained with his eleventh absinthe the attack of delirium tremens that did him in.
—from Novels in Three Lines, by Félix Fénéon, in honor of National Absinthe Day. Obviously, these are examples of less-than-responsible consumptions of absinthe, and seeing as all of Fénéon’s three-line novels end in death, serious injury, or other forms of destruction, we don’t exactly encourage enjoying any day ‘the Fénéon way’ beyond reading the book.
[The image above is a drawing of Fénéon by Felix Vallottone taken from from Le Livre des masques (vol. II, 1898) by Remy de Gourmont (1858-1916).]
Introduction: Swans (and me)
I met Michael Gira, frontman of Swans, after the first time I saw the band play live. It was March of 2013 at the Black Cat in D.C. I had driven two and a half hours from my college town of Charlottesville, VA to be there. Gira shook my hand, looked straight into my eyes from under his trademark cowboy hat, and said something like, “It’s so nice to see young people at our shows these days.” I can’t remember what I said to him, if it was anything beyond “thank you.”
At that show, Gira turned up the heat as he likes to do, at one point asking us mockingly if it was warm enough in the room. He danced around, waving his hands like he was summoning something primal from the depths of the earth. I saw Gira conduct the band, constructing moments of perfect synchronization that were absolutely revelatory in terms of the way he was presenting sound. The music was so loud that it was tangible, which brought home the necessity of physically experiencing Swans instead of simply putting on a record. It’s the difference between appreciating how nice a table looks in a room and smashing it to bits to see what it’s made out of.
Why I chose Swans for this week
Swans allow me to explore the aspects of music that are important to me. Much of Swans’ output could be called “challenging,” and I believe that we need heavy, noisy, unsettling music in this world. And yet, Swans also have the ability to transcend. They transcended their No Wave beginnings. They found moments of engulfing beauty in their last few albums and during the shows supporting them.
Swans have really run the gamut in terms of their output, from obscure noise records to major-label art rock. They’ve been through a lot as a group, and come out the other side in an arrangement that takes into account both the importance of their recorded music and the power of their live show.
How I’m approaching this project
I majored in history, meaning this week I will take into account both context and chronology in evaluating Swans’ discography. I will adhere to a loose narrative illustrating how the band progressed from their brutal early work, to the classic album Children of God, to their “accessible” (or trying to be) material, through their enormous drone/noise late projects, and finally past their hiatus to become the formidable touring noise orchestra and composing machine they are today. I’m also going to talk about major lyrical themes in Gira’s work (darkness, light, sex, God, death) as well as how the band builds their sound.
Swans are doing some incredible work recently with sound both live and in their recordings, a culmination of Michael Gira’s 30+ years of making music under the name. If you stick with me through this week, I want you to hear Swans’ post-hiatus output as the product of the various “failures” and successes of their earlier discography. Including the “sellout” album Gira doesn’t want us to hear. Including the teeth-gritting, drawn blood hardness of their early records.
In addition to examining Swans’ catalog as a whole, I would like to draw attention to the influence their music has had on a number of genres, from noise to hardcore, grindcore, and sludge. I’ll be posting a few bands throughout the week that probably wouldn’t sound the same without Swans.
Ultimately, I want those who have never gotten into Swans to find something in their discography that appeals to them. There is a huge variety of music produced by Michael Gira & co., so much that every reader could sit down and appreciate at least one song this week (but hopefully much more than that). This band means a whole lot to me, and I hope I can convey that to readers over these next seven days, and convince them to either start listening to Swans or see them a little bit differently than they did before.
Up next: my answer to the question, “Where do I start with Swans?” as well as a few songs that might serve as entry points into aspects of the band’s sound.
movies of the week
The sleeper must awaken.
This is so much overkill it becomes parody.
You can’t say enough good things about this movie, actually.
Turn off the sound and the Lynch-like realms of delirium become even more intense.
A paean to imagination and creativity.