Monday, March 26, 2012

Better as a Single: "Soundtracks for the Blind" by Swans


"Swans" is a pretty generic name, one that could fit a band in any number of genres. This two-cd set has an empty, generic cover whose main focus of attention is merely a grey circle. The album's title, Soundtracks for the Blind, is pretty interesting, but still gives little clue what its contents might be.

And I wish everyone could discover this album the way I did, as a completely empty slate, with no idea who was making the music or what genre they thought they were working in. That gives the experience a sense of wonder, of mystery. A sense of discovery. SO you might just want to stop right here...

If not, let me start with what Wikipedia calls this album. They, or rather some user or users somewhere, call it 'experimental, post-punk, post-rock, art-rock, minimalism, ambient'. If that's not enough, the article itself also adds 'dance music' and 'punk rock'. It is 140 minutes of incredibly varied music that makes a virtue of its incoherence. By and large, though, you can find two major stylistic approaches in amongst the genuinely breathtaking diversity: The first is a kind of post-rock influenced gothic sound, lengthy ten-plus minute epics with a Tortoise or Godspeed You! Black Emperor influenced musical backdrop over with a man (whose name is Michael Gira) moans in a vaguely Nick Cave-like way (on occasion, a woman of many voices called Jarboe sings instead). The second, quite removed, is what I've been calling 'sound collages', static soundscapes built from various musical or non-musical sonic elements. Aural abstract art, I suppose. Each of these features at least one extended vocal sample, a 'found' element, a monologue or snippet of discussion sourced from God-knows-where. That leaves perhaps as much as a third of the album as 'detritus', more or less completely random tracks from any of a multitude of genres.

Apparently, Soundtracks from the Blind was compiled in part from tapes from the Swans' shelves; outtakes and archives. To that end, then, it's arguable whether or not to consider this a studio catalogue album or a 'compilation' - compilations, of course, not being what we're about here at 'Better as a Single'. It seems, upon listening to the album, though, that the album is not a collection of outtakes so much as a new piece of work based in part on elements recorded years before the album. Not to say it's coherent, mind you: it's even less coherent a project than a good many artists' 'greatest hits' packages. Hell, it's more diverse than some various artists albums I've heard.

Which leads to a bit of a problem on my part. This album is two full-length CDs, twenty-six songs, and my job is to cut it in half. But when messy incoherence is a virtue, what difference does it make if the project lasts 150 minutes or 75? Surely one ladleful of stew is no different from two or three ladles, right? Or is it possible to tease a coherent narrative from this mess? Well, I have tried, and not by favouring one 'genre' over the others, either, but by discarding much more than 50% of the project, leaving a mere eight songs I could easily imagine being released on a two-sided slab of vinyl. Having said that, though, I should mention that my album is just shy of an hour and, lengthwise, not all that much shorter than either of the two discs on the double, but the big difference is that each track gets to have its own discrete identity as opposed to being merely another part of the kaleidoscopic rush of semi-random ideas. So it's an album of songs, as opposed to a suite. Does the result hold together as an album? I'm of the opinion that it does, but in a very different way to the two-disc original.

On a personal note, doing this particular album has really helped reawaken in me the 'thrill of discovery' of new music that gets harder and harder to tap into as the years go by. Swans have apparently been around, in one form or another, since 1982 - thirty years now - operating under the radar in a variety of mostly confrontational genres. 'Swans' means little more than 'Michael Gira and whoever he happens to be around', but still, as a body of work, Gira's legacy is impressive, formidable, and not always entirely listenable. Still, a whole world to explore - if you can find it.

Soundtracks for the Blind

Side one
  1. Red Velvet Wound (2:02)
  2. Helpless Child (15:47)
  3. I Was a Prisoner in Your Skull (6:39)
  4. All Lined Up (4:48)
Side two
  1. Secret Friends (3:08)
  2. YRP (7:47)
  3. Minus Something (4:14)
  4. The Sound (13:11)
Red Velvet Corridor: lose

The album opens with three minutes of what we might call 'dark ambient'. This is not a song at all but merely a construction of sound - an abstract collection of layered noises whose overall intent is to create an unsettling and vaguely paranoid feeling. It does so, while at the same time I must add remaining what you might well call 'beautiful', and as such it is a decent introduction to the album, intriguing while giving away little of what is to follow. There's nothing wrong with it, but I wanted to start my single-length with a different song called 'Red Velvet' something or other.

I Was a Prisoner in Your Skull: keep (track four)

The first of several of what I call 'sound collages' on these two discs, this is a slow-shifting piece comprised of various found sounds, in this particular case a strange manipulated vocal sample that gives way to a rather rollicking rhythmic band rumble that then, out of nowhere, drops away to reveal a vaguely 'aboriginal' sounding whistle. which serves as a prelude to a lengthy vocal sample. Most of the 'sound collages' on these disc feature such samples, people recorded from various sources talking about various things. This particular one is less interesting than most of the others, but it sits on top of a gamelan-style soundscape of rare beauty. These six and a half minutes hardly cohere as a 'song', and in fact you could easily mix all of the 'sonic collages' on these discs together into a giant piece lasting more than half an hour. But this is how the material is presented on these discs, and in that regard this particular slice of sound is perhaps more enchanting than others.

My eight-track single-length turns out to be four vocal songs and four instrumental pieces (well, five and three, really, but the vocals on one of the tracks are beside the point, so it doesn't count). It seemed to make sense to me to alternate them, and that was a main guiding principle in my overall programming of the eight tracks. That left this song as side one, track three, following the epic that it precedes on the double. My side one is almost entirely taken from the original's disc one and my side two was, without exception, taken from the second disc. Which I swear was coincidental.

Helpless Child: keep (track four)

At almost sixteen minutes long, this is the longest track on the album. And perhaps surprisingly, it is a 'song' as opposed to a 'sonic collage'. So how does a song last sixteen minutes? Well, after a rather unconnected introduction that lasts two minutes, the song itself begins, a moody groan of acoustic guitars, vibraphones and those slightly overwrought 'angsty' baritone lead vocals of Michael Gira. With the glacial tempo and deliberate nature of the song's construction, these minutes pass by quite easily. At the seven-minute mark, however, the song takes flight as it gradually becomes a roar of electric guitars, keyboards and drums. The pace doesn't pick up a bit, however, and it remains plodding through nine minutes of slow-building intensity. Admittedly, this is boring as hell if you're not in the mood. But if this catches you at the right moment, it's sixteen of the most transcendent minutes you'll spend.

This is one of two huge epics that I chose for my eight-track album (they are half the entire length of my resulting project). Obviously it makes sense to put them on opposite sides of the disc, and in fact I almost open and close with them. Not quite, though: I have a brief little introduction to the album. After that opening, though, I throw you in the deep end. This is my track two on side one.

Live Through Me: lose

An unassuming little piece of backward-sounding keyboard atmospherics and a rather frantically strummed acoustic guitar. Too little really happens in the piece for it to catch your attention or to reward repeated listening.

Yum-Yab Killers: lose

The first track in a four-song an 'oddities' set with a high WTF value, this particular beast is, of all things, a live recording. And perhaps this is indeed what the Swans sound like live, or at least did at a particular point of their long and storied history. If so, however, I prefer them as a studio entity: this is some rather horribly unpleasant screaming female vocals over an oddly martial drumbeat, a kind of second-rate grunge with none of the elegance so readily apparent elsewhere on these CDs.

The Beautiful Days: lose

The first half of this track is a meticulously constructed drone, a rather harrowingly dark piece of primal noise. At about three and a half minutes in, a child's voice enters, looped and sing-songy. The effect is absolutely shattering, the single darkest moment in a very dark two hours, and conclusive aural evidence that there is no god. One of the finest moments on the entire album. The problem - and it is indeed a very big problem - is that the track goes nowhere after that. The child's loop goes on too long, and the mood never really shifts enough to either build or release tension. A sample at the end about masturbation helps with the creepy tone, but by then (after over seven minutes), the spell has dissipated.

Volcano: lose

'Volcano' is a kind of deconstruction of, of all things, house music. The peculiar thing is that so much effort has clearly gone into the creation of the sunshine melody, a kind of breathy poppy ditty perfectly welcome on any early-nineties radio station, that the inevitable layers of noise and general weirdness don't entirely seem like a punchline: is this track sincere, or is it making fun of the genre it recreates? The uncertainty disappoints, in the end, as it is never resolved, and you're left unsure if you've just listened to an enjoyably weird house track or an elaborate ruse at your expense.

Mellothumb: lose

A mellow strum, an effective, simple little guitar-based mood piece, is gradually drowned out by a massive roar not unlike the sound of an airplane. And that's all. Rather pointless.

All Lined Up: keep (track seven)

After a rather lengthy series of experiments, we're back to what passes for conventional songwriting on this album. An entirely beatless composition made up of vocals over top of sonic oddities (plus a piano) suddenly, occasionally, bursts into screaming life with an attack of guitars and drums. This is the classic soft-loud-soft-loud dynamic taken to its logical extreme, but somehow it works as a piece, evocative not of Pixies alternative music but somehow of Nine Inch Nails in a more introspective moment.

I'm happy that I finish out the sides with vocal pieces; it seems a bit more 'substantial' than going to needle-silence off an instrumental. That means that this particular track ends off side one.

Surrogate 2: lose

This is a dark ambient piece, an unsettling drone (sounding like a cello) with some various noises on it. It's really not bad at all: upsetting, but not in an easily definable way, and yet still somehow rather lovely. I wanted to include it, actually, but I couldn't make it work with the others, and ultimately I'm not upset I didn't include it. But for an offcast, it's quite a good listen.

How They Suffer: lose

With one of the two speeches in this track being a man describing (in more detail than you'd need) his sight difficulties, this is, I suppose, the album's title track. It's another sonic collage, and the part in the middle is a rather elegant semi-ambient piece that could have shown up on a Brian Eno album. It ends with a medical interview with an elderly patient. Two people who suffer, I suppose.

Animus: lose

This particular eleven-minute epic served in a way as the 'single' from the album, released in advance of it on an EP. While it was hardly about to tear up top 40 radio, it's a canny choice as a single in that it very much 'sums up' the album, being another example of the moping, pseudo-gothic 'post-rock' genre featuring Gira's elegant basso profondo, but one that rises not so much into a volatile mass of wailing guitars so much as a more unusual mix of varying songs, conceptually similar to the 'musical collages' elsewhere on display. The effect is intriguing, but falls a little short of 'enchanting'. It's still a worthy listen, and a worthy conclusion to the first half of this lengthy two-disc set.

Red Velvet Wound: keep (track six)

This odd little fragment is a waltz, sounding pre-rock, European and perhaps beamed in on a shortwave from a distant galaxy. Like 'Volcano', it seems to be sending up the genre it's also meticulously set out to replicate, though it's less ambivalent, and as a result more enjoyable. It's gradually drowned out by noises that also sound interplanetary in origin.

I'm quite fond of this little slice of confusion and wanted to include it. Gira starts off the second CD with it, and I like the idea of using it as the opening track for the whole thing, probably because as a genre experiment it reveals nothing of what's to come - also, the clamouring, mauling noise that engulfs it rather is more revealing, and as the sound of 'conventional music' being destroyed by an ugly/beautiful sound, it's perhaps quite a telling introduction to the album.

The Sound: keep (track six)

The post-rock 'epics' on this album all have several traits in common: firstly, they're all vocal pieces that, somewhere before the midpoint of the track, allow an instrumental 'rush' to overtake them. Secondly, they all have similar tempi and arrangements. 'The Sound' has the requisite vibraphone during the quiet bit and the requisite walls of distorted guitar during the loud bit, but adds to that what seems like a harmonium, droning the track's two-chord progression throughout. And in this case, while the rather attractively yearning vocal melody gets sidelined just a few minutes in by the (titular) booming whoosh (which never picks up the glacial tempo even a nudge as it gets louder), it comes back at the ten-and-a-half-minute point for a diminuendo that, together with a series of music boxes and that insistent harmonium, creates a fully satisfying sense of rise-and-fall.

Any of these epics could have made a decent album-closer. Gira puts this one near the beginning of disc two, the post-rock epic he chose to follow 'Red Velvet Wound'. I put another in that place, though, and this is the one I choose to conclude my entire disc, as track four of side two.

Her Mouth is Filled with Honey: lose

This particular sonic collage springs to life with a trebly ringing like an alarm, an unpleasant sound that grates on the ears for the first eighty seconds of the track and is enough by itself to disqualify this track from inclusion. A pity, though, as the remainder is quite impressive, a highly unsettling wash of sounds with urgent voices and whispers.

Blood Section: lose

This sounds, of all things, like an excerpt from a jam band on stage in mid-flight. Some rather hyperactive drums lay on top of, well, on top of not much more than a series of guitars playing the same riff over and over again. There's nothing exactly wrong with it, but it reminds me of why I don't listen to jam bands very often (or at all).

Hypogirl: lose

A strange little track (less than three minutes long): a simple little acoustic-guitar-based strum over which Jarboe makes like Billy Corgan, of all people, sounding very male at times. Unfortunately, what she mostly sounds is comically histrionic, and by the end you're not upset to have her go away.

Minus Something: keep (track eleven)

'Minus Something' is a sound collage, too, much like the others. Yet it plays more like a 'composition', and as such a distinct entity, than the others. The vocal recording this time out, a man talking about his own malaise, is more interesting because it's a semi-poetic, descriptive passage. And what follows that is also more interesting: a rather hazy but still alluring piece built around a flute, a vibraphone and canyons of noise. Static, and yet still beautiful.

I put this as track three on side two, second to last on the whole disc, right before the closing epic 'The Sound'. I suppose it's kind of a 'summary' of the album before its epic finale begins. Or maybe it's just the only place this song fit. The other 'sound sculpture' is also track three, on the other side.

Empathy: lose

For an album with such an amazingly broad palette of sonic colours, it's surprising how closely the vocal pieces stick to the same sonic template, starting out quite similar to one another and differing mainly in the way in which they take flight, which they inevitably do. 'Empathy', at less than seven minutes, is the shortest of them (imagine an album where 6:45 is considered short!) and probably the most inconsequential; its condensed length is due largely to the fact that it doesn't take flight exactly, settling for a quick crunch of a middle section before returning almost immediately to another verse and fading away, in fact, in a wordless whisper. Nice, but rather more-of-the-same.

I Love You This Much: lose

One of the lengthier of the sonic collages on the album, this is really quite uncategorisable, a rather aggressive heaving noise that gives way to a collage of what might be a church organ playing for the moaning souls of the damned. Quite exquisite, really, but then unfortunately it gives way to a mere dull roar of what might be white noise with a ride cymbal on top. A rather disappointing phase that goes on all too long. Not bad at all, really, but not quite worthy of inclusion.

YRP: keep (track one)

After a bizarre and unrelated introduction, this settles into a peculiar slow-burning groove, exotica post-rock vibraphone over layers of atmospheric guitars. On top of this Jarboe alternates Kim Gordon-like spoken verses with a kind of atmospheric wailing serving as the chorus. A few cycles of this, and then the song gets overtaken by loud, slamming guitars. The whole thing is very feminine, even under those thudding and droning guitars, and really quite beautiful.

Jarboe's only significant vocal performance on my album, 'YRP' stands alone. So I put it between two instrumentals, and that would be as track two on side two.

Fan's Lament: lose

Just as 'Blood Section' seems like an excerpt from quite a different band, this little minute-and-a-half burst sounds, of all things, like a stadium-filling 'heartland rock band'. I wouldn't be surprised to hear this tacked onto the end of a song by Nickelback or Bob Seger or something like this. And the most bizarre thing is that it still doesn't seem out of place on this album.

Secret Friends: keep (track eight)

An instrumental, though one with vocals: Gira's voice shows up singing wordlessly in the vein of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western soundtracks, an obvious influence on this beautiful piece. However, they don't appear till the midpoint of the track, and the main instrument, presumably a keyboard but vaguely flute-like in a way that calls to mind 1970s documentaries, keeps the piece far away from Italy. This is the one piece on these two discs you could play most readily for anyone without fear of hurting their delicate sensibilities - hell, it could actually be played on radio - but that's no insult, for it's truly an excellent piece.

I use this to start my side two. It's an attention-grabbing piece, but it's still short enough to serve as 'introductory' and atypical enough to have a similar effect to 'Red Velvet Wound' on side one.

The Final Sacrifice: lose

Though it's followed, for no reason I can surmise, by two random little snippets, this is clearly designed to be the album's climax. It takes more than three and a half minutes to get the the vocal entry, vaguely Christian imagery sung so slowly and deliberately that it's tough to make them out. The requisite vibraphone and ride cymbals are accompanied, this time, by an unobtrusive string part that is actually quite enchanting. For the only time on the entire album, Gira allows his vocals to rise from a gloomy whisper, belting and growling in order to bring a dramatic intensity to the track. And it's here that the track fails for me: the caterwauling vocals strike me as almost laughably overwrought, and brings a kind of adolescent sense of angst to the piece. This track lacks the crashing waves of guitar noise the other 'post-rock' pieces have, probably because the vocals attempt the same dynamics. The track ends with a burst of applause and a 'thank you very much', though it doesn't sound at all like a live track.

YRP 2: lose

Call these last two track 'bonus tracks', short bits with similar names to other tracks that appear after the album should logically have ended. This noisy piece of nothing is seemingly nothing more than a single guitar crunch from 'YRP' repeated over and over again as Jarboe screams over top. Pointless.

Surrogate Drone: lose

The track 'Surrogate 2' is indeed based on a drone - not this particular one, though. This is in fact just two minutes of a white-noise drone. And while it's not bad as white-noise drones go, that's not saying much.

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