In a recent interview with The Fader, Michael Gira of Swans claimed that he took acid 300 times before he turned 14. That’s a lot of acid for a young buck. That’s a lot of acid for any buck. A whole lot. I took acid about 78 times before I turned 18 (and I haven’t used it since). That’s not nearly as many trips as Gira, but it’s a pretty solid number of trips, I think.
One of the many things experimenting with acid taught me was how to listen to music differently. Long before I heard Merzbow or Wolf Eyes, I tripped and listened closely to the droning ovens and hissing dishwashers at the Pizza Hut where I worked as a lunch cook. Six years later, when a friend turned me on to proper “noise,” it wasn’t too shocking. I also learned that some albums and some songs contain particular moments that can totally shatter and terrify; my whole world can be flipped upside down, turned inside out and burnt down to the ground with a single lyric or guitar squall or cymbal crash.
On one occasion, I recall some friends and I were a few hours into a trip, listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Everything was cool until “The Trial” hit, and the line “Good morning worm, your honor” totally crushed me. It rubbed me way wrong, and I couldn’t get it outta my head. I kept repeating it. “Good morning worm, your honor.” Each time I pictured the waking worm that was about to determine my fate. Being judged by a worm just didn’t seem fair, and I didn’t understand how I’d ended up in such a precarious position in the first place. Thinking about it now, 15 years later, “The Trial” still creeps me out.
Across the Swans discography, from Filth (1983) to The Seer (2012), such moments abound, especially on the early and late recordings. Gira is a master of terror, and the 300 acid slabs he sucked as a boy likely helped him hone this skill. He can devastate your world, flummox your grip and throw you into darkness. But if you look really close, there’s oftentimes a bright light shining somewhere that can potentially lead you back up from the pit. In preparation for Swans’ show at Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday night (Swans return to Bowery Ballroom on October 28), here are ten terrifying moments from the band’s catalog.
“Blackout,” from Filth (1983)
Gira’s most disturbing when he’s barking orders. On “Blackout,” and much of Filth, the lyrics consist mostly of these commands. He’s the master, you’re the slave. “Don’t talk until you’re spoken to,” he says. You do what you’re told. You sit in the corner, and you shut your mouth. It’s not so bad. But then he yells, “Don’t breathe.” So you don’t breathe. You hold your breath. And you die.
“Freak,” from Filth (1983)
One of the most brutal songs that Swans ever made, this track slashes like a spiked whip. It’s Gira kissing the depths of despair and self-loathing, making even Black Flag sound like music for a happy-fizzy party. “Come here you freak,” orders Gira. “I saw you crawling last night, big erection in your hand, you rule the world, you’re gonna murder somebody weak.” Welcome to the war of all against all. “Job,” from Cop (1984)
“Cut off the arms, cut off the head, cut off the legs, get rid of the body.” It’s your job. If you want the money, you’ll do what you’re told. You really need the money.
“Cop,” from Cop (1984)
“Nothing beats your head in like a cop in jail,” Gira sings. The line appears clear: your enemy is the cop that’s beating your head in, you’re the victim. But Gira casually swaps “your” for “their.” “Nothing burns their skin like a cop, with a match.” He’s antagonizing all sides: you’re the victim, you’re also the one doing the torturing. The possibility for empathy with the Other exists, perhaps. But it only comes from acknowledging that you’re the cop doing the torturing at the same time as you’re the victim being tortured by the cop. You embody both positions simultaneously. But, maybe there is no Other. Perhaps you’re burning your own skin like a cop, with a match. You just set yourself on fire. “A Fool,” from Greed (1986)
When an album’s first song is this devastating, you’re in trouble. The repeated pair of echoing piano notes refresh and enhance the memory of old tragedies. “I’ll believe in a lie, I’ll believe in myself,” Gira howls. For the first time, perhaps, he realizes how disgusting he really is. Now there’s only one way to distinguish himself from himself, to forge a new identity. “I’ll cut off my right hand, and stand in your shadow,” he decides. Now his shadow has two hands, and he has only one. Is he a new person? Or is he just a fool with blood squirting from a spot where a hand used to be? (Note: The following version of “Fool” is the one from Holy Money, which is similar to the version on Greed.)
“Heaven,” from Greed (1986)
“It’s all right, we’re in heaven,” moans Gira. So that awful rumbling sound must be God, right? And those tormented screams must be angels, yes? Relax. You’re safe now. (Run.) “Another You,” from Holy Money (1986)
What sounds like a harmonica makes you think you’re moving. Like you’re on a train. But you’re not. You ain’t going nowhere. “I’ll walk 15 steps across the room, I’ll stay there until I know where I am, I won’t move until I remember where I am.” But you don’t remember, therefore you don’t move. So you create “another you,” and this version of you maybe does what you should’ve done earlier. “I should have hurt you,” realizes Gira. But it’s too late. There is no other you. Those 15 steps were your last 15 steps. You’re trapped.
“Beautiful Child,” from Children of God (1987)
The song begins with gunfire. Gira thinks the child is beautiful, but something’s immediately fishy about how angry he sounds when he admits he wants to caress the beautiful child’s soft head. Then he reveals his true intentions. “I can kill the child, the beautiful child, I will kill the child, the beautiful child.” He has a warped understanding of caress. “You Fucking People Make Me Sick,” from My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky (2010)
Speaking of beautiful children, the child that sings with Gira on this tune has a beautiful voice. “I love you,” sings Gira. “I love you,” responds the child. This exchange is chilling. But nowhere near as chilling as the indescribable sonic violence that happens for the next two minutes, as piano, horns and drums produce a psycho-death rattle unlike anything you’ve ever heard before.
“The Seer Returns,” The Seer (2012)
This is one hell of a joyous groove, but don’t get too comfortable. “Your life pours into my mouth, my light pours out of my mouth, my life pours into your mouth, your light pours into my mouth,” sings Gira. It’s a warm, fuzzy feeling – all that light and life pouring all around so freely. But stop for a second and consider what’s really happening here. Light is coming out of your mouth.