Swans, Soundtracks for the Blind

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 11.27.11 in Reviews

Soundtracks for the Blind, released in 1996, was meant to be the Swans’ final album, and it was, until Michael Gira revived the band for 2010′s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. It represented a curious sort of coda to the band’s career, however, stepping away from the full-band maelstrom of the previous records and delving into the collage methods of Brian Eno and Teo Macero.

Capturing the band’s definitive unraveling, one strand at time

The album gathers together new sessions featuring Gira and Jarboe’s Great Annihilator tourmates (Iggy Pop drummer Larry Mullins, American Music Club guitarist Vudi, and bassist/guitarist Joe Goldring) along with 15 years of band recordings, tapes, found sounds — including eerie spoken-word passages culled from the private collection of Jarboe’s late father, an FBI agent — and more, all “reassembled, looped, mangled, and in many cases overdubbed upon to create new pieces of music,” as Gira explained. Twelve years later, the perennially dissatisfied musician recalled, “There was SO MUCH material to deal with, to sift through (whole trunks full of decomposing, moldy cassettes and discs with samples and sounds), and the task of making it into something coherent was at times debilitating. Really like climbing up a mountain of sand. I don’t remember why I set this goal for myself, to somehow incorporate such a ridiculously disparate amount of material. I think maybe it was so I could justify throwing all that crap into the local dump, which is what I did when I finished the album.”

It’s easy to understand Gira’s frustration: The double-CD album, 142 minutes long, is truly epic, and it covers a staggering amount of stylistic ground, from lysergic musique concrete to metal-tinged goth and foreboding death folk. In many ways, it’s as representative of the Swans’ master vision as The Great Annihilator, but in reverse: Where that album was a summation, Soundtracks for the Blind captures the band’s definitive unraveling, one strand at time, into a messy pile on the floor.