Graded on a Curve:
Swans, Filth

Swans’ 1983 debut LP Filth reminds me of the summers I spent working at an iron foundry. That foundry was a prodigy of chaos, noise and filth. This baby has it beat.

Me, I kinda dig Filth’s no-wave, proto-industrial clamor, and I’m not alone. After noting that “Not only isn’t it for everybody, it isn’t for hardly nobody,” Village Voice rock crit Robert Christgau wrote, “I think it’s a hoot.” And then there’s my pal Rick Piel, who said, “I love Swans. They’re like Pere Ubu without a good singer. Or good musicians. Or harmonies, rhythm and melody.”

Filth remains one of the most vicious assaults on human ears ever released, and producing such a preternatural din wasn’t easy–it took two bassists, two drummers (who occasionally abandoned their kits to strike tables with metal straps) and a guitarist who approached his instrument like a man applying a steel file to a cheese grater to do it.

And over it all Michael Gira, whose muscular vocals make him sound like a man who’s singing while bench-pressing heavy weights, invokes scenes of submission, humiliation, and depravity. He keeps things monotonously simple, repeating the same ugly phrases over and over; on “Blackout” he bellows, “Get drunk! Get drunk!” and “Don’t breath in! Don’t Breath in!” And that’s pretty much the formula throughout. Gira the minimalist makes man-of-few-words Iggy Pop sound downright verbose.

Filth is less a work of creation than destruction. “I wanted the music to obliterate,” Gira would say later, and it does. This is scorched earth, apocalyptic stuff, the music of five guys dead set on stripping music of all of its redeeming, life-affirming qualities. There is no place in Swans’ world for beauty, redemption, hope, faith, or charity. If an abattoir could make music, it would sound like this.

It should come as no surprise that Swans–who take a perverse glee in limning the limits of human degradation–emerged from decadent New York City, where Hubert Selby Jr. penned his bleak and gritty novels and the Velvet Underground paraded their tales of nihilism, brutality and perversion. Swans’ almost pornographic approach to music is a reflection of the ugliness and squalor of NYC’s mean streets–had this baby been released earlier, you would have had to buy it in a plain brown wrapper in a Times Square sex shop. Joseph Conrad’s “Into the destructive element immerse” would seem to apply.

Each and every pummeling song on Filth is a dirge, a flaming Viking death ship, a funeral procession gone mad. Which isn’t to say they all sound the same. Some are perkier–although I hesitate to use the word–than others; why, you could almost dance to some of them. While tunes like “Blackout,” “Gang,” and “Weakling” grind exceedingly slow, others (“Thank You,” “Big Strong Boss,” and “Power for Power”) boast big, almost elastic grooves. To quote good old Dylan Thomas, they sing in their chains like the sea.

I have my faves. “Blackout” staggers like a drunk and boasts an eerie guitar that sounds uncannily like a flagpole bending under hurricane winds. “Freak” is a chaotic free-for-all that looks backwards to the final songs on Iggy and the Stooges’ Fun House and forward to such noise rock outfits as Cows. Meanwhile, “Stay Here” features a gigantic bass riff and some metal strapping that provides the perfect counterpoint to Gira’s constant refrain of “Flex your muscles! Flex your muscles!” As for the line, “Stick in your hand in your eye,” I really don’t want to know.

If Filth is listenable (and it most assuredly is) from the vantage point of 2019, that’s undoubtably because the many industrial, noise rock and grunge rock bands Swans helped inspire have made it so. That said, I can’t imagine what the folks at CBGB must have thought of Swans back in 1983. The poor suckers must have suffered severe cases of fear and trembling.

Make no mistake, however; Filth remains one of the most uncompromisingly caustic and acerbic records you’ll ever lay ears on. Swans makes music for masochists; I can’t help but think the proper response to each and every painful song on Filth is a flinch, followed by the words, “Thank you master. May I have another?”

Gira once described the Swans’ sound as “sophisticated,” and to the extent that any sexual perversion is a mostly cerebral rarification of so-called normal sexual desires, it is. Just as some people simply can’t get off on vanilla sex, others find vanilla music too tame for their tastes. They need Swans, because Swans produces welts.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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