There are so many affirmations strewn throughout the last two Swans records, it can be hard to remember the New York noise group hatched as a force of total negation. Whether it’s the “Send them home!” battle cry of “Song for a Warrior” from The Seer or the howling plea of “I need love” from “Just a Little Boy” off this year’s To Be Kind, Michael Gira sounds like he’s got at least some hope for humanity in the 21st century. He didn’t in 1983.
As a whole album, Filth is just three minutes longer than the longest song on To Be Kind — nasty, brutish, and short like the life it encapsulates. Recorded just as the no wave of the late ’70s was dying out, Filth spiritually, if not aesthetically, carries that movement to a fitting grave. The mainstream had absorbed post-punk, glossing up bands like the Talking Heads and selling them back on major labels. “Burning Down the House” crept into the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10 in 1983, showing the most polished face from New York City’s dead punk scene to the rest of the country. Meanwhile, Gira grunted about money, power, and hate, smoldering in the wreckage that the careerists had left behind.
Swans happened as a way to scream “no” to the idea that art rock could be prettied up and packaged for a suburban audience. It was about making the ugliest, most brutal music possible, slashing at propriety, venting disgust. As the group’s first album-length document, Filth sounds tamer now than it did 30 years ago. Its edges are rough, but like Gira’s music today, it’s rooted in repetition. Swans blast the same chord for six minutes as a foundation for his tuneless barks. Choppy guitars squeal, while percussion seems to rain in from everywhere at once. It’s a controlled burning, grotesque but not chaotic, deeply disturbed but precise. Once you get past the rust on its surface, its rhythms can almost be comforting.
Gira’s lyrics shoot out like debris from a culture bent on control. “Wrong! Right!” he shouts alternately on “Right Wrong”, like a sequence of neon arrows pointing first one way and then the other. The deep, lurching beat on “Power for Power” holds up abstract lines like “power, money, hate, to control and keep it.” “You’re going to murder somebody weak,” he threatens on the quick thrash of “Freak”.
You can treat Filth like an exorcism, a purification ritual. Early ’80s New York had a lot to exorcise, and so did Gira, an impoverished day laborer struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. The album was enough to draw Jarboe into the mix; before she joined Swans for a decade-plus run, the singer and performance artist had lived under the watch of her FBI agent father. “I became obsessed with Filth. I played it over and over and over again, like a crazy person,” she said in a 1995 interview with the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Filth could be a way to exorcise the hooks that power had in you, wherever they happened to come from.
It’s an ugly listen, but that’s the point. Filth is a rare document of a band that had zero aspirations toward likability, zero desire to be known outside of the underbelly of angry people who “got” it. And while it doesn’t achieve the transcendent peaks of Swans’ best work, which they’ve done, amazingly, in this century, it traces an embryo with enough potential to get them through to The Seer. It’s the first chapter in a survival story, the first gasp of a band that could have burnt out at any second. Somehow, they muscled on for decades instead.
Essential Tracks: “Power for Power”