A Token of My Extreme: Swans- Cop/Young God/Greed/Holy Money (1984/1986/1987)
1984, 1985, 1986, 1999; K.422/Young God Records
"Swans are majestic, beautiful looking creatures. With really ugly temperaments." -Michael Gira
It's hard to come up with a more apt description of the material NYC band Swans released in the '80s. Often sharing the No-Wave scene with Sonic Youth in their young noise terrorist days (it's rumored that Thurston Moore played bass on the first Swans EP) and Lydia Lunch's Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Swans was about as confrontational and challenging as you could get. As Michael Gira disdained the metalheads that started coming to shows, they would later temper their bleak piledriver assault with cerebral Gothic leanings in the form of Jarboe's melancholic feminine vocals and more refined instrumentation with distinct gospel and folk flavors, but 1984's Cop and Young God EP are an undiluted shot of what made early Swans so great and influential, even if their single-minded depravity left them unpalatable to 99% of the Earth's population.
The very definition of brutal, early Swans' MO was basically an exercise in industrial sludge, a few doomy chords repeated incessantly behind a series of utterly nihilistic and angst-ridden proclamations which left absolutely nothing to the imagination. With song titles like "Cop," (sample lyric: "The punishment fits the crime/Nothing beats humiliation/Humiliation's a disease/Nothing beats them like a cop with a club") "I Crawled" and, most controversial of all, "Raping A Slave," the band laid out themes of domination, despair, and the perversion of power with all the subtlety of a bloody shovel to the head. Listening to Gira's growled mantras and Norman Westburg's slow, tortured guitar is an experience akin to overdosing on barbiturates while sinking into a burning tar pit, helpless to escape. The Marquis de Sade would be proud.
Released a couple short years later and featuring Swans mainstay Jarboe, Greed and Holy Money were a slightly more approachable and refined expansion of the band's artistic palette, but no less determined and harsh for it. "Time Is Money (Bastard)" features a machine-gun rhythm that wouldn't be out of place in an underground S&M club, if the first twenty seconds don't beat every single tooth out of your fucking head. "Coward" opens with the startlingly direct line "I'm a coward/put your knife in me" before pouring on the deliciously painful feedback, and "A Screw" (NSFW!) juxtaposes a thunderous trumpet sample with the usual jackhammering and seriously damaged guitar "solo." However, there are early signs of Swans' later sophistication--"Blackmail" and "You Need Me" are disarmingly pretty vocal showcases from Jarboe accompanied by piano, and the absolutely apocalyptic "A Hanging" with its demonic choir touches on the religious themes they would expand with later recordings.
Reissued in 1999 as a double CD, Cop/Young God/Greed/Holy Money's impact at the time of their release was far reaching--it's hard to imagine Justin Broadrick's Godflesh and their genre classics like Streetcleaner without Swans paving the way, and certainly today's doom metal acts like SunnO))) and Khanate draw heavily on the uncompromisingly dark aura and extended dirges of these early records. After Swans broke up in 1997, Gira went on to form the much lighter, Americana-influenced Angels of Light and Jarboe pursued an avante-garde solo career of her own, but there's been much talk of a reunion. Personally I can't wait. [Update: As of January 2010, Michael Gira has reformed Swans and they are recording new material. I repeat: HOLY SHIT]
Enjoy doom metal, or anything remotely minimalist/sludgy? You need this. Now, dammit.
If not, I would highly recommend approaching this after a few Godflesh, Killing Joke and Ministry albums. Some later Swans records wouldn't be a bad idea as well--1995's The Great Annihilator is probably the best place to start.