We are going to review every Swans album in order and we are starting knee deep in Filth. I am up to my hips in Filth and it is cold and damp and uncomfortable. In absolute defiance of my expectations and my general understanding of Swans’ ouvre though, it isn’t very scary.
This seems like a justifiable grounds upon which to rate this bands’ discography. Swans albums are scary! They are dense, lengthy monoliths that are treated more like museum pieces than discs to set on a platter. They are treatises, they are intensity and uncompromising voice. They exist in their own little world that operates under rules that seem alien and arcane to mortals from our plane of existence. Swans are less a band than mystical musical demons who play their own cruel tricks on the listener. Tricks the listener will never, can never truly understand. The enjoyment of a Swans album is their own, not ours. We give it up. We can only play-act the ritual of enjoying a Swans album. This is my understanding of their music at this point in time.
So imagine my confusion when Filth, aka the one with the dentist’s chart as the cover, is incredibly un-scary! Sure, it’s not easy listening, but it is many things that Swans albums are typically, to my understanding, not. It is short, it is immediately understandable, and it feels like music made by a few people in a room.
There is no sun or moon-gazing going on here, no protracted journeys into the dark soul of man.
There are 9 pieces of drum and noise-accompanied yelling about masculinity and power that pass by fairly cleanly. Filth left no scars, physically or emotionally. I can safely recognize it as just another piece of music.
I would go so far as to say that it is out-and-out goofy in a way that seems uncharacteristic for the band. Gira does silly things with his voice here that effectively satirize and undermine the macho macho lyrics he keeps belting out. On “Blackout” his voice echoes as a tiger’s growl, while on “Stay Here” his commands to “FLEX YOUR MUSCLES” turn into wimpy squeals and castrated whines. I get the sense that, if there is a joke, and I reckon there definitely is even here, at this early hour, Gira and his thrashing bandmates are in on it.
With that in mind, the true power play, the true submission, is submission to the music’s grinding volume until the record ends. This is why I truly think Filth is such a non-scary entity: the dynamics don’t allow it to be. The album is a relentless rhythm, with all the negative space filled by resonating cymbals and guitar feedback. There is no breather, there is no comedown. It is a horror movie wherein a monster is constantly jumping at the screen. It does not feel like a journey into darkness because there is no room to breath or to contemplate. It is, as Gira explains, “power for power’s sake.” Songs don’t even fade out, they just end. This is power without majesty, it is blunt force. And because blunt force is seemingly exactly what they were going for, it works fairly well.
So in terms of scariness, Filth has failed me. It is too loud to be scary, too simple. It is your neighbor’s dog barking at you across the fence, its barred, impotent teeth reflected in the album art. But as a musical artifact I find it kind of compelling still. Swans will find a thousand ways to hurt me over the course of their discography, but it feels fitting to start it here with a strong punch to the teeth.
I wasn’t really sure how to introduce this review. I’ve only ever listened to Swans once before, on their visceral opus To Be Kind. Quite frankly, it was an exhausting ordeal I never felt like revisiting, and I extended that moratorium over all thirty-five years of Swans’ catalog. “Why would I ever want to listen to an angry, sweaty man in a cowboy hat groan about the Haitian Revolution?” is I think a statement I actually said.
Well, it serves me right, because here we are at a turning point in Hearing Double’s (un)inspiring history of strange projects. Tucker and I will be reviewing every Swans album, from the opening bombardments of Filth to Michael Gira screaming about Toussaint l’Ouverture some thirty years later.
To say I’m excited is maybe an overstatement, but it’s also maybe an understatement as well. Coming out of Filth, I think I might actually find something to love here in this insane mission of ours.
Filth is an abrasive monster to be sure, but maybe – just maybe – Filth, with all of its faux machismo and thrumming rhythms, is my kind of abrasive monster.
When I first listened to Filth, I made the fatal mistake of not committing to the necessary shellshock and played it at a normal volume. Instead of letting the slugging rhythm explode in my ears, I tempered Filth’s strongest points for the sake of an eased introduction. The aggressive texturing and sheer muscle were lost on me, and instead the only pieces I could focus on were the discordant ramblings of a Michael R. Gira, the only sound to bleed out from behind the sonic wall and Filth’s only functional centerpiece.
It made for an uncomfortable and unenjoyable first listen. I was actually bored by the third or fourth song.
I listened again, of course. This time, however, I turned the volume up more and committed Filth to a more attentive listen. What was once a vague guitar crunch suddenly became tinnitus, and I could feel basslines sock me across the cheek with each rumble. In some places, like “Weakling,” I thought I could physically feel the bass slogs.
At the same time, threads began connecting in my mind between Filth and albums I sincerely enjoyed. I started hearing bands like Viet Cong and Soundgarden mixed into those abrasive howls and rhythmic thunder. Even bands Sonic Youth suddenly made more sense to me! Filth stretched out into territory that felt familiar and, once those connections came about, suddenly Filth was grounded in terms I could enjoy.
It’s a sonically violent record grounded in sludgy rhythms, almost more of an ambient record than anything pigeonholed into r-o-c-k. At the same time, it’s such a simple sound, with a singular riff and rhythm that becomes dynamic once its pulped by volume. Yes, it had Gira belching some kind of command, but my god, was it affecting.
Were these the same sounds that spited me to To Be Kind years ago? Somewhat – there was maybe a little more of a punk grounding here from which To Be Kind was able to afford some distance. But these same sounds that turned me off four years ago were suddenly pulling me in. Filth is the kind of record that could make me a Swans fan.
Ultimately, I’m not really sure how to speak to Filth objectively at the moment. I don’t have anywhere near the context the other review likely has, and Swans are a band that have the kind of following that demands an experienced hand. Besides, I’m not exactly sure what I could contribute to a discussion of this record that hasn’t already been pasted in a Pitchfork review or shared across the bowels of internet chat boards.
But as a newcomer to the fold, I’m sold. I’m ready for Cop.