Opening with more of the same paint stripping guitar pomposity from Norman Westberg and sonorous factory made kick drum courtesy of Ted Parsons that had indelibly stamped their earlier work, Swans’ 1987 release Children Of God receives yet another reissue this month from Michael Gira’s Young God Records.
It marked a turning point in their sound after they had welcomed Jarboe and her flute and acoustic guitar to the fold the year before. She’d lent screams to the group’s Time Is Money (Bastard) EP and long player Greed, but it’s on Children Of God where she wrestled for artistic control within the ranks.
So as New Mind fumes with the familiar choking clouds of industrial smoke and blistering noise, Gira assuming the role of pious street preacher damning his down-at-heel, grime covered audience to hell, so her protective influence can be immediately felt on second track In My Garden. It’s an unpredictably tender folk ballad, redolent of Psychic TV’s The Orchards, which finds the singer’s quivering and breathless vibrato managing to place a temporary pastoral lid on all of that exhaustive masculine hostility.
That’s not say that their bludgeoning aesthetic is in any way diluted or eradicated by the supplementation of a few feminine energies. The ponderous Our Love Lies trudges along with suitable solemnity, and the raspy Beautiful Child replete with gunshots, resumes the band’s monolithic timbre, whilst Like A Drug (Sha La La La) heeds back to the group’s No Wave beginnings with aggressive stabs of atonal guitar, sax and keyboard, all stifling for air. However it’s when Jarboe is forefronted once more on songs like Blackmail, a timid piano siren song that lures passive listeners into its sticky web, and Blood And Honey where she exposes the scope of her musical range.
Appearing to mock Gira’s monotonous delivery in a sudden deep contralto over a bass line that hums with agitated menace, her lyrics speak of romantic threats and further expose the group’s propensity for implied violence and supposed misogyny. As the lyrics portend: “We’ll lie down in the warm green grass / and the sun will shine on your pale shape / our blood will flow black in the dirt / and a black rose will grow where we laid”, bringing forth dark suggestions of biblical sacrifice.
The group divulge a number of quixotic truths on Real Love and Blind Love. The former summons the spectre of Ennio Morricone, as sand blasted harmonicas compete in a bloody atmospheric showdown against Gira’s black dressed man with no shame. The latter meanwhile recalls Tupelo era Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds in its jumpy Christian mythologizing. The album concludes with the title track, a carnivalesque worm eaten canto, with Jarboe affirming ad infinitum their position as religious converts. After four years battling their demons live and in the studio, on this record she may well have saved them from a fiery demise.