Swans – Filth

Swans - Filth

Filth is the debut full-length album and second overall release of Swans, a musical group (although better described as a “collective” with how many members come and go) fronted by Michael Gira. Released in 1983, Filth is quite different from the post-everything experimental rock music that characterizes Swans’ famous Soundtracks for the Blind and The Seer, being an out-and-out industrial release with significant no wave influence.1 Tracks are bare-bones in production and instrumentation, with a focus on scraping percussion and root-canal guitars rather than any possible notion of melody. Like the majority of no wave artists, Swans aimed at being as punishing and cruel as possible,2 with little of the stark/sublime beauty that characterizes the Jarboe-era of their discography. There is no true drone like that on Soundtracks and the reunion Swans albums with which the modern fanbase is well-acquainted; Filth focuses on repetitive, minimalist compositions that are firmly rooted in rock textures – albeit heavily degenerated in true no wave style.

Filth juxtaposes acerbic spoken word with BDSM-barks, as best demonstrated by leading track “Stay Here” and its obsessive refrain “flex those muscles.” The slimy guitars utilize the “anti-” chord progression akin to early Gang of Four, especially on “Blackout.” Although Cop and Greed would focus more on the “noise” aspects of industrial and no wave, Filth does have the nihilist poetry of “Freak,” a ninety-second beat poet’s nightmare (or wet dream?) in bass abuse and tape experiments; it’s easy to see where noise punks such as White Suns got their inspiration. Gira’s early propensity toward discordant, vicious percussion may be seen in “Right Wrong,” whose warrior beats overwhelm Norman Westberg’s languishing guitar. Hell, percussion alone was such a focus here, Filth credits two drummers/percussionists – and judging by the ferocity and sheer enormity of sound, it’s one of very few releases that needed two.

Subversion and perversion are the key to Gira’s (simple) lyrics – a common theme in both industrial and no wave scenes. “Right Wrong” features the endlessly repeats “satisfy the dog,” which doesn’t require too much thought to figure out. “Power for Power” utilizes the mantra “use sex for control / use power for power / use hate for freedom / use money for cruelty,” a series of 1984 slogans for sadists. “Gang” is particularly violent, urging the listener to “cut out the infection / beat up the violator / gag him and screw him down / … / hammer the nail” – the ultimate reward for painsluts, or Hellraiser body horror. The lyrics are gross, unpleasant, and thoroughly discomfiting – especially when bellowed from Gira’s spittle-covered lips. They’re a perfect match to the uncompromising, dungeon-esque music.

This album is disgusting. Check it out.

(Its history as the first Swans full-length notwithstanding, Filth unintentionally influenced the early crossover metal scene through one Mitch Harris – drummer for a little band known as Napalm Death – who described Filth as “grind” to a friend, thereby giving “grindcore” its name.3)

1. Stay Here – (5:37) – ★★★★☆
2. Big Strong Boss – (3:02) – ★★☆☆☆
3. Blackout – (3:46) – ★★★★★
4. Power for Power – (5:53) – ★★★☆☆
5. Freak – (1:13) – ★★★★★
6. Right Wrong – (4:42) – ★★★★★
7. Thank You – (3:52) – ★★★☆☆
8. Weakling4 – (5:20) – ★★★☆☆
9. Gang – (3:19) – ★★★★★

Overall: ★★★½☆

1Hah, New Yorkers…
2… although if you read his interviews on songcraft, there’s an obvious amount of tenderness and affection that goes into even the most grueling tracks. Here’s a short and sweet one: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/oct/19/swans-michael-gira-lyrics
3Mudrian, Albert (2004). Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore. Los Angeles, CA: Feral House.
4… from which the eponymous US black metal group got their name.

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