Archive for the ‘SWANS: Sacrifice and Transcendence’ Category

The Door is Open: 10 Songs from the World of SWANS by Nick Soulsby

I was kindly invited by Kevin, the creative mind behind the Void Report (great title which I really need to ask how he came up with!), to try to suggest ten songs that go some way toward capturing the wide span of styles and approach that exist within the entity known as Swans.

It’s quite a task. One of the finest things about Swans is that they’re a band that didn’t just record the same album, or variations of it, over and over again. It was never possible to say “this is what Swans sound like” for more than a couple years – then the sound would shift almost entirely. Better still, many bands, making a stylistic shift, simply wind up sounding like a pastiche or a tribute to styles that others do better: SWANS never did that. Swans always sounded like their own thing – an original.

I always think of Swans as a number of phases: 1982-1987 the gargantuan audience pulverizing era; 1988-1989 Americana years before Americana was back in fashion; 1990-1993 the age of rhythm married to articulate lyrics and layered orchestral detail; 1994-1995 return to rock; 1995-1997 the jettisoning of rock and the invention/ushering in of what would come to be the post-rock era; 2010-2011 the wedding of Angels Of Light to Swans; 2012-2016 the creation of a new hybrid of minimalist composition, pop/rock song-craft and maximalist impact.

So, what did I attempt to pick? What I aimed for was to find ten songs that summed up some central aspect of each of those times – a song that acted as a doorway to each spell before the wheel turned again.

I think the advice stays true: if you don’t like your first taste of Swans, just move two albums down the line and try again – you’ll find a new band that is still, without doubt, Swans.

I also want to thank whichever genius came up with the ‘how to get into Swans’ graphic – it’s a work of art.

I loved this review by David Solomons because I love writing that means I learn something. That opening quotation from GK Chesterton is amazing: a perfect encapsulation for the need to change and vary something if it is to remain fresh and retain the qualities one sees in it.

I also like the fact that it contains new stories, that there’s stuff I hadn’t heard – watching the whole of Dune and half of Eraserhead projected on screen at Mean Fiddler before the Swans show – that’s great stuff!



swans online

What better way to spend a Sunday evening than sipping a beer and talking the wild life and times of SWANS? On the 21st, at Rough Trade Bristol, we’re going to be getting together to show exclusive clips from Marco Porsia’s upcoming film on Swans ‘Where Does A Body Begin?’, read unreleased material from ‘SWANS: Sacrifice And Transcendence – The Oral History’, talk SWANS…Basically it’s the all-SWANS night.

The link above to the event, it’s free, the bar at Rough Trade is pretty darn good, their performance space is neat…Should be a fun night.

What I’ve enjoyed about these so far is hearing people tell their tales about how they came to connect with Swans – again and again there’s been something more than just ‘bought the music’, it’s been about meeting Gira or Jarboe, receiving mail from them, hearing the band in an eighties venue, working to set the gigs up, so many different connections…

Naturally,I’ll be signing copies of the book toward the end. Feel free to bring your copy along – or, sure, buy one from me on the night. I like signing things! I’m friendly! 🙂



I’m hugely looking forward to this. My three all-time favourite albums, the ur-text of my tastes, are Nirvana In Utero, Sonic Youth A Thousand Leaves and Swans Soundtracks For The Blind. There’s something about the teenage moment that can never be reproduced when it comes to impact.

On Sunday 23rd, at the Shacklewell Arms (see below for website/location) I’m in attendance to hear the  entire 140 minutes of pure genius that is Swans Soundtracks For The Blind over a cheerful pint or two. I admit I’m curious to consume it over the sound system at the venue, to see if it helps me peel back a few layers and find something my own stereo doesn’t quite get to. With an album I’ve lived with for some two decades it’s a moment like this where I can hear with fresh ears, step outside of my usual distracted home state and into a room where this is the core of my attention, stand in a place where I’m not bothered about thrashing the neighbours with sound and really absorb it. I’m looking forward to going to the opposite end of the spectrum from the private headphones in the dark experience.

This is part of an ongoing, and deeply wicked, series run by Michael Brooks bringing together those who love an album, those who are just curious, those who fancy a (free!) night out on a Sunday with good music and a touch of bonhomie.

Why Soundtracks For The Blind? In my view it’s still Swans finest hour – and I say that in spite of my admiration for the past four albums. This was 1996, building dense layers of ambient sound in studio was still in its infancy, and there’s a physicality to the process Michael Gira and Chris Griffin had to go through to realise these results. Post-rock, in the form of bands like Mogwai or Godspeed, hadn’t quite taken off yet, so this kind of widescreen, orchestral approach to sound – something way beyond jam-band noodling – was near new. The source materials elide the entirety of Swans history into one album, most overtly in the form of Jarboe’s take on ‘Your Property’, but also in the use of aging tape loops, outtake material, the new set being played by the 1995 era band as laid to tape in a west coast studio at the close of the U.S. leg of the tour for The Great Annihilator. To this day, I think Swans is the only band to work successfully at a double CD scale: this is a coherent album experience, something requiring a journey rather these gross ‘album as compilation to be self-curated and deleted’ releases that seem to fill a lot of chart time to an increasing degree.

I’ve agreed to introduce the album, provide reading from the book to contextualise its creation, to locate it in time and space…before we’re all sucked into its all-consuming maw of sound where we’ll dwell for just over two hours. Weightless, fleshless, devoid of physical form – at the mercy of pure experience. Wonderful.

Was rather gratified to see this go up today! Part of being a writer is not just ‘writing stuff’, it’s trying to make sure that people even know the words are there. Sure, no writer wants to be a marketing person too – which is ultimately what this spell of a book entails – but there’s still fun to be had.

For a start, the individuals working in music and arts journalism are passionate: there’s little money to be had in the field so these are people who do it because they love it. It’s a genuinely energising intervention in a day to receive responses from people who have much to say about music, who feel your work might offer something to them and to their audiences, who believe in what you have done or are doing.

Personally, I also enjoy what I call ‘the hunt’. When I’m preparing a book a lot of what I do is track people down – find ways to get in touch with them. It’s precisely the same process with the media. Which outlets are out there? Who would be best to speak to? How could you contact that person? How do you make sure they know you have thought about them, that you’re aware of their work, that you’re not just spamming them?

Very kindly, the crew at Luminous Dash in Belgium also shared the press release piece. Press releases, I try very hard because I want them to have some energy and excitement to them…But they’re also generic in some ways – it’s a balancing act. I’m delighted when people broadcast the press release. The next stages up are book reviews, then there are interviews about the book, extracts from the book, the video piece PopMatters permitted was a new innovation for me, then articles/other content surrounding the book – one magazine has asked me to do a ‘my worst records ever’ piece!


I was invited, by Pop Matters to contribute a video excerpt from Sacrifice & Transcendence so, at the Moth Club book launch last month, we took over the ex-servicemen’s committee meeting room upstairs (complete with darts board, trophies and portrait of Winston Churchill – well it is the ‘Winston Churchill Bar’ after all) and I gave it a shot.

Decided to tackle the early days of the Swans Are Dead tour in 1996, a fraught time but one that – I think – shows the perfectionism, the pressure, the frustration, the striving for excellence that went with that moment in time for Gira and the other members of that line-up of Swans.

Norman Westberg (Swans guitar god referring to ’85-’87 era): “playing Swans music made me feel ‘I can’t wear a shirt to this, you have to be close to naked, you have to be hard.'”

Nick Soulsby (2018): “Reading about Swans made me feel ‘I can’t wear a shirt for this, you have to be close to naked, you have to be…Errr…”


This is my fifth book and it’s been really intriguing to me to discover what a difference format makes. Reading it on a screen, in Word, on A4 print-outs, as part of the editorial review process – it’s not like ‘real reading’. It’s a colder process where you’re looking to trim weakness and slice out anything that clunks or doesn’t fit. Reading it in book form, it flows differently – maybe because there’s no longer a pressure to fix it, maybe because it’s no longer work. The clarity of the text when printed in normal book-sized pages also makes it feel less weighty, easier somehow. Add on that there’s normally an eight to ten month gap between handing in a manuscript and seeing the final book. That means it’s like a stranger’s words when I finally get hold of it.

I’m usually hypercritical of my own writing: I had to re-read the introduction twice this week to realise I quite liked it and that I stood by the words. I still spotted things about Swans I would have liked to have said more about – but I remember wanting to keep the introduction down to the bone. What I really wanted to avoid was some horrible gushing PR-puff-piece. I hate books TELLING me that a band is or was important or that a band’s music is oh so good: the reader can decide themselves by listening to the band’s music – it’s up to them. Similarly, I think importance is overrated. I wanted to say why Swans was unique: why it could only arise with these people, in a particular place and circumstance, why it’s a unique phenomenon in so many ways and what makes it so.

I also wanted to avoid writing an ‘English Literature A Level’ analysis of the lyrics: yes, the lyrics are fascinating, but I was really worried about creating some grim analysis of imagery and blah blah blah. So I avoided that too! I kept the introduction down to: Gira, the People in the band, NYC late seventies-early eighties, the business behind the band. It felt like those were the factors governing how Swans existed and functioned – a fair context for reading people’s stories of their life and times in the outfit.

There was much made in the late eighties and early nineties of the influence of Jarboe over the turn in Swans music, then much comment on her absence from the return of Swans in 2010. My belief is two-fold: firstly, that Swans couldn’t continue without her by 1996-1997 and, secondly, that the present iteration of Swans would be impossible without the influence she had Michael Gira and the nature of Swans between 1984 and 1997.

The former seems inarguable. During interviews for SWANS: Sacrifice And Transcendence (, both Gira and Jarboe made clear something curious: that the traditional understanding is that their relationship bled over into and affected the band while, in their view, it was the other way around. It makes sense: the ethos of Swans was so absolutist – so focused on making every show, every recording and every performance the zenith of what could exist in that moment – that each would leave their mutual love and affection at the door and show barely a hint of mercy to one another’s feelings. Swans had to be everything. Each would argue, critique, dissect and demand whatever it was felt a song might require to reach the heights. Jarboe had become increasingly prominent as a vocalist – by the time of The Great Annihilator in 1995 she sang fully five of the songs on the record – but also was contributing lyrics, working up music with Lary 7 and others then introducing it to the context of Swans (‘Volcano’, from Soundtracks For The Blind for instance was apparently intended as a Jarboe solo work with Lary 7 to appear on a compilation or a release outside of Swans), adding her instrumental textures to near every song performed. Swans would have been sorely lacking in contrast and surprise in her absence. More so, in terms of the functioning of the band, Jarboe and Gira were the ‘officer class’ and, to some degree, seem to have occupied good cop/bad cop roles with Gira kicking people’s ass while Jarboe rallied, mollified, persuaded and encouraged. Having the two poles can be extremely beneficial in any working environment (I’ve seen it fairly regularly in offices) because each pulls different positive responses from those they work with – it certainly has an effect when it comes to a music like Swans with its reliance on tension. At times, during the later tours, it seems the band would have quit if not for Jarboe’s persuasion and ability to raise spirits. Gira couldn’t envisage, in 1996, Swans continuing without Jarboe and he clearly couldn’t imagine making it work in the aftermath of their romantic relationship: their symbiosis had become the core of Swans.

The latter is a more nuanced point. Swans, in 1984, was at a turning point: when Roli Mosimann and Harry Crosby left, Swans consisted solely of Gira and Westberg – Gira considered abandoning music. Jarboe persuaded him to continue and was subsequently recruited to the line-up – Swans continued, in part, because of her. With Cop, Swans early template reached its fullest expression: the sound itself needed to change if the band was not to tread over old ground. Greed and Holy Money, for all their claustrophobic bludgeoning vibe, contained significant space – loud quiets so to speak – as well as Jarboe’s vocal contributions, even a piano. Gira would speak of his increasing disquiet at the component of the band’s audience who saw the music as nothing more intelligent than some kind of arcane heavy metal, loudness and heaviness just for the sake of it – that kind of predictability was unsatisfying. Jarboe possessed the musical education and knowledge that would offer Gira the new possibilities he craved – as well as the confidence and encouragement to learn and to try. Gira’s evolution into a genuine singer was the open door to Swans’ future and began with Jarboe teaching him rudimentary vocal techniques to build on and practice and develop. The Skin project, meanwhile, was an opportunity – paid for by Product Inc (Mute) – to gain experience and comfort working with acoustic instrumentation in combination with the possibilities of the studio. Again, everything learnt in Skin would bleed back into Swans making possible the flourishes present on Children Of God and the full-blown Americana of The Burning World – by the time of White Light and Love Of Life Swans’ sonic expansiveness was the new norm with guest performers, session musicians and other specialist musicians making regular appearances. Jarboe was no passenger, any more than Gira was a puppet: increasingly they were equals allowing one another the room and comfort to experiment and go further.

A significant side-bar would be Jarboe’s tireless work as Swans main correspondent with the fan community. Today it’s simply accepted that underground artists need to develop a bond with their audience in order to allow creative art to continue. In the case of Swans I’ve been amazed with the dedication and fanatical faith of the fans I’ve encountered: that relationship built over decades to become what it is today. In the eighties it wasn’t unusual for bands to write back personally, Swans simply took it a lot more seriously than some. Through fan mail, Jarboe made connections to artists like Deryk Thomas and corresponded with future band member Bill Bronson among others. She would also create Swans first website and messageboard offering an entirely new level of contact – very much one of the frontrunners in the independent music scene in that regard. The website was central to the continuation of Swans legend, legacy and reputation as the band itself exited. Via the site substantial quantities of interviews, CD-R live shows and other information were archived for discovery. Jarboe also made a point of using rare records and other Swans-related materials accumulated over the years as talismanic art objects, one of a kind objects of desire, meaning further weight accreted to Swans as an entity of ongoing significance. I specifically recall printing out and reading interviews at age 17-18 – few bands had an online site of such scale or depth pre-millennium (many still don’t today.) I remember considering whether I could afford a $100 dollar test pressing or to buy multiple shows from the 1996-1997 tour to observe the evolution of the music – I was sucked in and enthralled. This was one of the springboards that kept Swans present and enticing to new generations – they were relatively easy to learn of compared to many acts of the eighties and nineties who required substantial digging.

The connection between what Swans had become by 1996-97 – an omnivorous sonic palette encompassing whatever instrumentation, approach and delivery would yield the intensity of emotion and experience desired – and what it has been between 2010 and 2017 is very clear. The dynamism of the modern band, and recognising that its studio and live incarnations are quite different in many respects, has been what allows it to evolve and develop and continue to connect with an audience. That expansiveness arose out of the dead-end reached by the mid-eighties; out of the opportunities offered by Jarboe’s presence and the trust Gira had in her; out of the experiments she brought to the table. To this day Swans contains significant space for the contrast afforded by a female vocal or for found sounds and other interventions while the lavish instrumentation of the most recent albums has grown from the seeds planted in the mid-to-late eighties. At the time, some fans disparaged Swans turn to the esoteric – accusations of Gothicism were made – but it meant open-eared elements of the old audience, those who understood that true intensity didn’t just mean ‘loud’, stuck with the band while a new audience evolved who appreciated what it had become. Spanning generations and allowing for growth is vital if a band isn’t to become typecast, categorised, static and stale. Present-day Swans is very much the child of what Swans became after Jarboe’s influence and involvement.


Having spent the past year-and-a-half immersed in the music and stories of SWANS, it was an honour to be invited to put together a playlist focused on the band. What I did, in each case, was tried to identify a quote from a member of SWANS that spoke about the context or content or performance or meaning of a song – then try to say, in my own infinitely fallible words, what the song means to me or why it stands out in my mind.

What I love is that there’s no way to speak of a single ‘SWANS sound’: this is a band that has evolved significantly album-to-album, grown exponentially year-by-year, in which the first EP sounds nothing little like the first album, where 1988’s Children Of God is a vast distance from Greed or Holy Money, where White Light From The Mouth of Infinity and Love Of Life are very different beats to 1984’s Cop or 1994’s The Great Annihilator. I was delighted to learn the other month that the Soundtracks For The Blind album is being re-released: I think it’s one of my favourite three albums of all time – a truly singular object and, until Swans return and the awesome 2012-2014 run of The Seer-To Be Kind-The Glowing Man, the only album I’d heard that I felt needed and deserved to be over two hours long. It still stands as one of the only album-length works in the pop-rock-metal-whatever domain to sustain a journey across that full span of playing time.

Wednesday night in London I’m at Moth Club where we’re showing a number of in-progress clips from Marco Porsia’s upcoming epic film on SWANS. There’s a DJ set from the Blackest Ever Black label opening the night then the film clips will be interspersed with my conversation with the host for the night, Q&A about (and readings from) SWANS: Sacrifice And Transcendence – The Oral History, as well as audience discussion. I’m intrigued to hear what people in the room think.

Moth Club_July 4


Quiet men are always misinterpreted. Norman Westberg has always been a gentleman but, sheer truth, the stern aesthetic of Swans in the eighties – his whip-taunt frame, tattoos, sharp look, the fury he unleashed on guitar – made for an unnerving impression. At some point age weathered that into an air of calm and patience – again, as a relatively private and peaceful soul people read into appearance and the work produced. Since 2012, while the odyssey that was Swans drove him round and round the world battering audiences into blissed-out submission, Westberg commenced a new series of solo releases (most available directly from him: and others via the Room 40 label.

Listening to his solo releases has helped me listen to Westberg’s back catalogue with fresh ears. Where I used to see only the overwhelming nature of Swans, I increasingly see the wide range of textures he brought to the music and how varied is work was – that he was plucking out aspects of his abilities to serve the needs of each composition on which he played which allowed him to span so many years and so many different Swans releases. I’ve reviewed three of the solo releases in the last couple of years:

And have built up quite the little collection (The Chance To, Somewhere Else, Idling Live, Jasper Sits Out, 13, The All Most Quiet, MRI…) After Vacation is billed as a move away from the on-the-spot immediacy of the existing releases with a degree of overdubbing and after-work conducted. Aesthetically it’s very visibly tied to the previous works 2012-2017, there’s a consistency of feel and territory.

The pieces here are mostly relatively brief: between three and seven minutes with even the outlier, ‘Levitation’, only just over the ten minute mark. Each one seems to explore an image or a particular approach. Opener ‘Soothe The String’ mirrors its title in that there’s a sense of tactility, that one can hear a physical guitar string being touched, stroked, drummed even though the resulting piece contains a glowering and ominous undercurrent. ‘Drops in a Bucket’, similarly, feels like the expansion of ripples in broken water with a heavy wave sweeping outward over and over again while other currents and collisions play beneath the surface.

‘Sliding Sledding’ plants heavy guitar strum (circa Bad Moon Rising Sonic Youth) against a descending chord pattern that sounds like an anesthetized I Wanna Be Your Dog, all layered over a waterfall backdrop of glittering notes. In it’s final moments there’s a sudden change into something like the triumphal hum of strings that might mark the peak of an orchestral composition. There’s that same merging of the small and the gigantic on ‘Norman Seen As An Infant’ which exists somewhere between the large canvas works of Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham and the detailed up-close electronic treatments of someone like Christian Fennesz. A Warm flickering bass tremor with a hollow dancing tone weaving back and forth over the top reminded me of a more danceable and carefully controlled result of Steve Reich’s pendulum music.

‘After Vacation’ is the real sucker punch – over a background shimmer, Westberg plays a beautiful melody, all slides, reverberating close mic’ed strings, plucked notes – it’s perhaps the prettiest thing I’ve ever heard him do. His solo records have always belied the roaring temperament of the music he’s best known for and it’s genuinely fun hearing an artist surprise with something so mellow. The combination of ambient backing and heat-stroked improvisation suggests there’s so much more in the tank.