It’s hard to believe, but 1984′s Cop and Young God are even uglier than Filth-era Swans. Norman Westberg’s riffs had become more atonal, gesturing only glancingly at conventional key signatures — for a totally anachronistic comparison, imagine DJ Screw remixing Greg Ginn’s guitar solos — and with slow glissandi drooping like dying flowers on the vine. “Half Life” boasts the same pitched-down low end and bracing squeals of feedback that New Orleans’s Eyehategod would popularize as “sludge metal” nearly a decade later — and yet, incredibly, Eyehategod sound positively quick-stepping when compared to Swans’ dying-elephant gait. And Michael Gira, rising (or perhaps descending) to the music’s orgasmic nihilism, lets loose with even more blood-curdling growls and roars, luxuriating in debasement with songs like “Your Property”: “I give you money/ You’re superior/ I don’t exist/ You control me/ You’re corrupt/ You deform me/ You own me/ You own me.”
But Young God also finds the band experimenting with a newfound sense of space, with ringing, wide-open guitars blasting through the walls of Cop‘s dank, claustrophobic torture chamber and paving the way for the totally unexpected shift that would follow with 1986′s Greed and Holy Money. (This 1999 compendium includes all four records along with selected songs from the related singles “Time is Money (Bastard)” and “A Screw.”) On the drum-free “Fool,” Gira wraps himself in opulent piano like some kind of Mars in furs; “Money is Flesh” and “A Screw” adopt the mechanical rhythms and synthesizers of European industrial music, while “Nobody” mirrors liturgically-inspired chants with what sounds like a harmonica’s low wail — an early intimation of what Gira will later develop as his own brand of Southern gothic.
Jarboe, a Swans super-fan who moved to New York with the sole purpose of getting close to the group, had joined the band by this point, and she prostates herself on songs like “You Need Me” (“I’m sorry/ I’m sorry/ I won’t do it again/ I’m sorry/ I’m sorry/ I love you more than myself”). Her vulnerable presence is the first sign of a softening Swans: Not so much singing as sighing, she taps a previously unexplored vein of tenderness that would soon explode across Children of God and the almost maudlin The Burning World, with its Mapplethorpe photo of a calla lily on the cover.
Before that transition was complete, however, Swans would record one of the most terrifyingly beautiful songs in their entire career: “A Hanging,” from Holy Money. The rhythm section beats out a turgid, tribal rhythm that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Sonic Youth’s Confusion is Sex, with the bass and guitar ringing like church bells; Jarboe’s multi-tracked voice rises in a pained devotional chant, and Gira addresses himself directly to his creator, promising, “Dear God in heaven, I’ll hang for you,” proving as skillful a chronicler of hell on earth as Hieronymus Bosch.