When I listen to music exuding intense amounts of power and fury, I don’t usually think of a group of aging geezers. But for the band Swans, power comes naturally for Michael Gira and his cohorts—the youngest of which is 49. But age is not an object for this band, which is toted as having some of the loudest live shows ever recorded, where their music becomes walls of sound rushing over their eager audiences.
As of late, Swans have been busy preparing for a lengthy tour in support of their latest album, To Be Kind, which comes out May 12. Just this week, they released their second single, “Oxygen”, which follows the release of “A Little God In My Hands,” released a few weeks earlier. These two “singles” showcase the band at its most furious, both clocking over seven minutes each. These songs build upon musical ideas introduced in their album The Seer, released in 2012. Both tracks start with basic groove-based riffs that anchor the song to the ground, while the rest of the band flies of the handle in bursts of sonic anger that are never reined in.
“A Little God In My Hands” begins with a sultry bass line that wreaks of rotten funk, accented by quick, staccato bursts of guitar that lurk in the shadows. In typical Swans fashion, they take their time before the song really kicks into gear, by slowly layering sounds on top of the bass line before Gira comes in with a vocal melody more reminiscent of a primal beast than of a human.
The song periodically is disturbed by massive waves of sound that flatten everything in their path. These sound waves are somewhat new to the Swans’ sound, as they are mostly generated via live electronics, which the Swans had only minimally experimented with before this album. About halfway through the track, more instruments are added, creating a more sinister sound, which shows the Swans’ ability to layer their music so densely with many complex textures and sounds. The song ends with another vicious blast of sound that disintegrates the groove and everything fades away except for a single guitar chord.
Their newest single, “Oxygen,” clocking at eight minutes, shows the Swans at the most raucous thus far in their career. As is customary with Swans, the song is built from the bottom up on top of a simple, but driving guitar riff. Slowly, they layer sounds, adding additional guitar and drums, before Gira comes in howling like a rabid animal. His vocalizations were borderline psychotic in “A Little God In My Hands,” but on “Oxygen,” he is a full-blown psychopath. He twists and stretches words until their breaking point until you can’t understand them anymore, although this song seems to be more about the power of the music and less about the message of the words.
The song continues building, adding the cantankerous bleats of a horn section until the band suddenly stops only for Gira to catch his breath and bellow the word oxygen, which is like the coda of the song. The song continues to pick up speed until the riff is disturbed by a sudden rhythm change, which beats the listener into submission with short bursts of a distorted clarinet crying in the background.
These two singles show Swans in top musical form as they continue to churn out music that is not only unique and innovative, but full of energy— especially for a band full of old farts. These two singles only increase my constant anticipation for the new album in May, and their subsequent tour.