Swans review: a wonderfully melancholic listen

Graphic created by Brenna Flanagan with Canva.

Graphic created by Brenna Flanagan with Canva.

William Becker, Staff Writer

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Going through the entire Swans discography is one of the most interesting musical experiences I have ever had, which is somewhat unfortunate, considering the fact that unless you are a die-hard fan of Anthony Fantano (The Needle Drop) or really like experimental music, you have probably never heard of them. Formed in 1982 by lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira, the band has released 15 full-length albums across a variety of genres. Gira has been the only consistent member, with his deep, crooning vocals being one of the only reoccurring elements.

“Swans are majestic, beautiful looking creatures. With really ugly temperaments,” Gira explains, perfectly capturing the entire idea behind the band.

To really understand Swans, one has to understand just how much their sound has changed with little mainstream attention. “Helpless Child” from 1996’s “Soundtracks for the Blind” focuses on the painful, melancholic and beautiful elements of the band. Personally, the song is one of the most soul-crushing I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. Their 13th album, “To Be Kind,” is how most modern fans came to discover the band, being one of the only albums music critic and journalist Anthony Fantano has given a perfect score to.

The album has only ten songs, yet it is nearly two hours long. On the other end of the spectrum, 1982’s “Filth” is one of the most unpleasant and atonal listening experiences one can have. It lacks in melody, structure, but instead fills each second with screaming, bass, noise and lyrics about extreme violence. It could not be classified as metal, but as something that could only be categorized as filth. “Leaving Meaning” is the band’s 15th album and the third “iteration” of Swans. Gira is 65 years old and is surrounded by another random assortment of collaborators. The current iteration of Swans is characterized by songs that are behemoths in scale, repetitive and meditative. The songs seem to build and grow with their drones, creating gothic soundscapes that sound like a misty day in late October.

Standout cut “The Hanging Man” features an intimidating bass line and gently pulsating drums that become so entrancing that it is hard to believe the track is nearly 11 minutes long. Gira’s vocals are drawn out, sensual, and pained. “Cathedrals of Heaven” sounds like a soundtrack to depression and loneliness with its nominalistic droning synths, gentle guitar strumming and lyrics like “Run your hands through my soil/feed your blood through my skull.” The second half of the interestingly named “Sunfucker” is another album highlight and seems to continue Gira’s weird obsession with the sun (other fun examples from the discography include “Bring The Sun,” “God Damn The Sun,” “I Am The Sun” and “Song For The Sun.”)

However, the album is not without its flaws. It is 90 minutes long and only has 12 songs, most of which are long, depressing and drawn out, which begins to feel somewhat taxing on the listener after “It’s Coming It’s Real.” Each song on the album feels unique enough to stand on their own, but it is a bit tough to make it through the album in one listen. Gira does not do a ton to change up his voice, which does not help with the taxing sensation that the album provides; nonetheless, in the right place and the right time. “Leaving Meaning” is a wonderfully melancholic listen.