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Swans - Soundtracks for the Blind CD (album) cover

SOUNDTRACKS FOR THE BLIND

Swans

 

Post Rock/Math rock

4.24 | 27 ratings

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zravkapt
Special Collaborator
Post/Math Rock Team
4 stars Swans is the group led by composer/producer Michael Gira who have been creating some of the most interesting experimental rock music of the last 30 years. Starting out as a part of the 'No Wave' scene of the early 1980s, they originally created post-punk, industrial and noise rock. Beginning with their 1987 album Children Of God the band started to mellow out a bit with folky elements and more subdued vocals. They changed their approach yet again with this album, their last until they reformed again in 2010.

Inspired by listening to Brian Eno the album was conceived as a 'soundtrack for a non- existent film'. Gira and longtime partner/vocalist Jarboe created some of the loops and sounds way back in 1981 and 1985; the rest of the music was recorded in 1995/96. Some of it was recorded live and some of it in the studio, sometimes mixed together Zappa-style. The music here was the most varied and experimental Swans had yet done up to this point. What makes this particular double-CD release interesting is the fact that it predates the kind of crescendo building cinematic post-rock that became more prevalent years later.

Godspeed You Black Emperor! comes to mind with the vocal samples and overall gloomy atmosphere. Although a lot of later post-rock has a similar vibe to some of this album, when this was actually put together most "post-rock" bands of the time were doing a Krautrock/dub/fusion hybrid very different from the kind of music GYBE, Mogwai and Sigur Ros would later make. Some of the vocal samples were taken from surveillance tapes Jarboe got from her father who was an ex-FBI agent. Others are supposedly of Michael's father. The main difference between this album and earlier Swans releases is that up to this point their music was vocal/lyrics oriented; here they make lots of room for instrumental excursions.

This is a long album and the track times range from 1 1/2 minutes to almost 16. "I Was A Prisoner In Your Skull" sounds like what GYBE would between 1997-2000. Including pummeling, militaristic drumming and oddball vocal samples, in this case a man describing how "f---d up" an unnamed person is with some kind of weird ambient backing. "Helpless Child" is a reworking of an earlier song. It's the third track but first with actual vocals. It starts off in Swans-style folky/ballad territory. After 8 minutes begins some electric guitar strums and lovely vibraphone. Then slow-paced pounding drums enter and shortly after some symphonic organ which adds to the slow-building crescendo already under way. The electric guitar proceeds to get an almost metal-like crunch to it while the organ playing becomes more predominant and busy. Then everything settles down.

"Live Through Me" opens with some hypnotic backwards loops (on organ?) before fast strummed acoustic guitar leads this drumless instrumental. Some guitar arpeggios to end it. "Yum-Yab Killers" is a rough sounding live performance based on the song "Yum-Yab" from a Jarboe solo album. This is Swans in post-punk style. "The Beautiful Days" opens with waves of atmospheric guitar distortion. Looped choir-like sounds lay the foundation for more atmospheric and spacey sounds. Then a recording of a child singing (also looped and faded in and out). More vocal samples at the end, this time a woman who's voice is slowed down. Such a beautiful and mysterious track.

"Volcano" sounds like a parody of the 'dance music' that was popular at the time. Sung by Jarboe and based on a programmed beat which is played backwards half the time. "All Lined Up" starts out as a weird sounding track with Gira's altered vocals (except for his background wordless vocals). Then out of nowhere goes into GYBE-style crescendo territory before abruptly going back to the earlier section. Both sections alternate twice. "Animus" opens with sound effects, acoustic guitar picking, dreamy keyboard sounds and Gira's vocals in folky/ballad style. Stays in this territory while other instruments (notably violin) are added. Halfway guitar distortion, more strings and random tom-tom hits takes the music in a different direction entirely.

"The Sound" is one of the standout tracks. Subdued strings, tremoloed guitar and vibes create an atmosphere for Gira's mournful vocals. Accordion and/or harmonium as well as almost random subdued tom-toms add to the atmosphere. After 4 minutes begins the first crescendo with guitar chords and cymbal smashing. Around 7 1/2 minutes switches to another crescendo - this time with repetitive organ and an overall GYBE-before-GYBE sound. After 10 minutes goes back to the beginning section but now the vocals are more intense. "Blood Section" is perhaps the most 'normal' sounding song here. However, this track is instrumental and sounds like then current alternative rock (but oddly the kind from the UK not the US).

"Hypogirl" is a weird avant-folk track with Jarboe on vocals. "Empathy" is another fairly straight-forward track which occasionally has a Mogwai-before-Mogwai vibe to it. "YRP" has Jarboe's spoken-word vocals over music which sounds similar to GYBE at their most mellow and subdued. Then the music can't decide whether it wants to build a crescendo or not. Then it decides that it indeed wants to build one...just not very dramatic or heavy of one. "The Final Sacrifice" is similar to both "Animus" and "The Sound" but there is no crescendos. Instead, Gira's vocals occasionally get loud and intense. Applause at the end. "YRP 2" sounds like the climax to a crescendo already in progress. Of all the songs here this one sounds the most like 1980s Swans.

A lot of music here and it may not be the most consistent album ever released, but a lot of ideas and effort went into its creation. Yet, it still sounds raw and spontaneous. A lot of music over the past 15 years sounds similar but there was nothing that sounded like this when it came out. The people most surprised by this album were probably Swans fans. It's hard to say who to recommend this to. If you enjoy GYBE and the offshoot A Silver Mt Zion you will most likely enjoy this album as well. The next two albums are in a similar vein but if anything they are actually more refined. Not a 'masterpiece' but highly recommended. 4 stars.

zravkapt | 4/5 |

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