I’m going to be frank here. Having never listened to Swans before, I had no idea what to expect. I knew they were known for unusual music, far-out stuff one may need a certain level of “culture” to appreciate. We’ve seen the internet memes, heard the jokes: an image with the caption WISH I WAS AT HOME LISTENING TO SWANS followed by some seemingly unrelated image. Oh, the irony! A band so mysterious, so off kilter, their reputation becomes the stuff of hipster lore. Similar to later avant-garde acts such as Death Grips and even Neutral Milk Hotel, the punchline to SWANS’ fandom feels like some guarded secret, an if you have to ask then you’ll never know kind of deal, as though we were talking about some treasure chest with an unbreakable lock.
Challenge accepted, I thought. I’ll break the hell out of that lock. This is just a band we’re talking about here, for god’s sake, not a solution to the Anti-Life Equation. I’ve appreciated Neutral Milk Hotel albums, and I’ve analyzed David Lynch movies. This’ll be a cakewalk.
What I didn’t consider was just how much there was to unpack from their music, particularly the album in question: the 2017 reissue of 1995’s The Great Annihilator/Drainland.
First of all, this isn’t an album. This is two albums in one, the “A Side” being the 17 track Annihilator with “Side B” being the 10 track Drainland. That’s 27 songs (though arguably some aren’t so much songs as hypnotic experiments in minimalist tone and surreal lyricism), only three less than The Beatles White Album, but arguably twice as unapproachable from a mainstream standpoint.
Yet I’ve got to say, the record is not bad. It’s quite enjoyable after a few listens, though I dare you to coherently explain its artistic intent.
The album, or albums, move in mysterious ways, and moves you the listener with it. At times, it carries you gently like a wind might carry a dust mote through a long corridor. At others, it forces you through dangerous terrain like violent waves across a rocky shore.
Lyric-wise, multi-instrumentalist and frontman Michael Gira blurs the line between surreal genius and rambling lunatic. At his brightest, his words paint a Dali-esque landscape of the subconscious; at his darkest, his words are the gray and dead nightmares of H.R. Giger, mechanical, cold, and foreboding.
As a newcomer to SWANS, I must admit, there are likely layers I have not been able to peel away. But it left me hungry for more. Perhaps it was the mysterious aura the songs emanated. Perhaps it was the uncanny blend of new-wave and avant-garde rock, akin to earlier acts such as Echo and the Bunnyman or Joy Division albeit taken to a new plane of the subconscious. Regardless, I highly recommend this album, both for enthusiasts of industrial roots and those looking to expand their minds a little further than mainstream rock will take them.
The Great Annihilator/Drainland (Remastered) is available at your local music retailer May 5th, 2017, or purchase directly from the official site here.