Swans’ sprawling discography, spanning 1983 to present, is often assessed by epochs. Early Swans is sludgy and scary, a slow and methodical hammering of drums, heavy guitars and effects accented by the pained, moaning vocals of Michael Gira, the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who is the one constant among a rotation of members that has included, in its earliest incarnation, fellow no-wave traveller Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (1991) and Love of Life (1992), re-released digitally and on vinyl by Gira’s Young God Records in December, mark a turning point in the band’s output away from abrasive, industrial doom and further into the ethereal gothic sound they began to embrace on the preceding album, The Burning World (1989).
White Light begins over a textured landscape of shimmering guitars and factory-precise drums (“Better Than You”), then descends more deeply into the hypnotic rhythms that are a hallmark of the current Swans’ soaring live shows, which many have likened to collective religious experiences, a description to which I can attest, having been fortunate enough to catch several recent tours. Love of Life delivers a darker, haunted beauty, in no small part to the backing and infrequent but powerful lead vocal contributions of Jarboe, who sang and played keyboards with the band from 1985 until its initial breakup in 1998. It’s hard to pick a favorite track, but some good candidates are the symphonic “The Sound of Freedom,” sung by Gira, “She Cries (for Spider),” sung by Jarboe, and “God Loves America,” sung by both.
A limited vinyl box set containing both albums features restored original artwork, two rare posters, a CD of outtakes, rarities, and live performances, as well as a download code for digital versions of both albums. A three-CD set including the bonus disk, as well as individual vinyl and digital albums, are also available. I’d recommend listening front to back with a clear mind and a good pair of headphones. They are cinematic and sublime.
I admittedly arrived at Swans late, with their 2010 release, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. One of the greatest joys as a music fan is discovering a “new” old band that immediately resonates. Such was the experience with Swans, and for those whose tastes veer toward the darkly elegant and atmospheric (from Nick Cave to the Cocteau Twins), either of these two albums would serve as a suitable entry point into one of experimental rock’s richest, commercially unsung catalogs, one that may see its last entry in this spring, when the current incarnation will release its final studio album.