Combined into a CD trilogy with Body To Body and a disc combining E.P.#1 with a dusted-off set of live recordings, the fearsome brute that is the first Swans album Filth emerges once again in a deluxe edition (and by itself on remastered vinyl via Young God) to terrify the listener and brutalise them into unwavering submission. Michael Rodham-Heaps reports.
Disc 1 — Filth
If an album suited its artwork, that Judge Death set of nashers poking out of the blackness on Filth goes some way to preparing you for the bleak monolithic experience that Swans’ 1983 début album imparts. It’s certainly a hot’n’sweaty beast, reductively stabbing at your head with nihilistic zeal and an immediacy that empowers, gives you an impression that you are invincible.A certain anvilled gait of bass scooping a rebound of guttering drums scaffolding your notions of self-worth (or eroding it). A stubbornness that Michael Gira’s macho growling holds to, baked in a muscular repetition scoured in noise and clawing feedback. It’s a powerful brutal beauty with metallic curves that beam out the early Einstürzende Neubauten comparisons.
“Blackout”’s splintering tent-pegs arch across a gnawing hunger wah-baptized in pre-recorded scree. It’s pure exorcism, throwing out a heavy dose of contempt, a primitive pour of negative imagery that falls through “Power For Power” like a frozen body hitting concrete; a sound encapsulated in a vision of Hulk’s fists sinking into steel walls. “Right Wrong” mines masculinity in the raw scraping of furniture across concrete, all the time Gira’s primeval banter giving the clambering a well-oiled convection. A finely honed machine that bleeds here (as on the double CD Young God edition of Filth and Body to Body of 2000) into some prize live capturings from around the same period.
Disc 2 — Body To Body, Job to Job
The next CD (originally released in 1990) gathers together a number of what were then unreleased studio and live recordings from 1982 to 1985. It contains two of my favourite Swans tracks too — “Seal It Over” and “Mother, My Body Disgusts Me”, the notions of power, control and submission exhumed in Filth extending here to death, revulsion and self-loathing, and a preoccupation with failure as a lyrical theme that would haunt Gira throughout the intervening years and beyond.
This is a great collection of songs and one which ranks after Children of God as my second favourite release by the group. Yeah, as I said it’s a compilation, but really reads like a cohesive whole, interestingly mixing up the fidelity of studio and live recordings, always keen to jut the contrast, tracks evaporating onto each other, reeled away on a whirl of an empty spool or transferring their leaking momentums on a loop’s arid bite. Loops that would be dumped years later into a landfill along with samplers and wads of floppy disks, an action that heralded the acoustic sincerity of Gira’s Angels of Light project.Like the first disc, I’m going for the highlights here, starting with those colossal drums of “I’ll Cry For You”, a quake-worthy blast to which the bass laps at its shadow like a mean’n’thirsty animal, with Gira pulling the strings from inside with a booming sincerity. This (like so much of the Swans œuvre) is about punctuation, punch, puncture — a shuffling of tension, staggering expectation; a force thrust into your face taking your breath away in spasmic clasps of chord, the song’s splashed-red Valentines souring on the words, “You used my weakness to feed yourself”.
“Your Game” is more of the same, a continuous tide of punishing exhales mining some superb tension, over which a dictophonic spew of words surfs majestically. Then “Seal It Over”with its percussive flagellation caught in blaring headlights of clawing guitar. Norman Westberg‘s guitar style is much in evidence throughout, a torquemeister supreme pulling wide screeching holes in everything, bullying things along or just clanking a Santa’s sack of pure wreckage. I honestly don’t know if they are trumpets heralding Gira’s word repeats on “Seal It Over” or Westie’s squealing passions. He’s literally all over “Half Life” too, following each double salvo with his scraping retractors, livening the middle ground with his handbrake turn and yurning joyrides. He’s up there with Messers Howard and Hendrix, but thankfully still mortal coil spinning with the returned Swans.The purring execution of “Mother, My Body Disgusts Me” must be the album’s ghoulish zenith, though (and for me definitely one of those mixtape musts). That slow-snared focus held in multiple ignitions and contra-tows that knot it all up in twitches of unsettling revulsion. A bitter pearl that the stuttering void of “Cop” tries to pick up the baton from, but only manages to grunt peevishly on back with a primitive glare, leaving the deeply ritualistic and hypnotic pull of “Thug” to work it strange intoxication. This is where things ended on my vinyl version, but on the CD they’ve tagged on a live version of “Raping a Slave”, which is rather Mad Max ruffian and makes for a fittingly growly end to a great journey.
Disc 3 — E.P.#1 plus Live Recordings
Now believe it or not, the rest is completely new to me, sort of missed out on E.P.#1 for some stupid reason I’ve long since forgotten; and what a surprise it is too. Not as muscular as I’d have imagined, more no wave(ish), like This Heat (maybe) with quite a bit of (dare I say it) funkiness whilst titling towards the direction of the junkyard of course.Even Gira isn’t his usual snarling self, preferring to tone down his angst in a post-rock(ishy) gothic stupor, something that Ivo Watts-Russell could have easily signed to 4AD’s early roster, those chaotically burly frets of “Sensitive Skin” in particular. Is this bad, you ask? Hell no! it’s just different and only a year before Filth too; an intriguing artefact indeed. Intrigue that is followed by two live sets, one at New York’s legendary CBGB’s and the other at London’s Heaven, both of which plunge us back into the gristled burn of the previous discs, ending on the monumental and recently resurrected live favourite of Gira and co., “I Crawled”, that sounds suitably proto, still striving to nail its trembling soul.