Recorded Music: Swans, “Soundtracks for the Blind” (Young God, 1996)

By Zachary Lona 

In the one of deepest crevices of the underground music scene resides a band that has confounded even the most seasoned fans for the last three decades. This group calls itself Swans, a word whose suggestion of beauty and elegance is disturbingly upset by the band’s sonic abrasiveness.

Widely regarded to be pioneers in industrial and post-rock, Swans made a name for themselves in the 1980s by subjecting concert goers to onslaughts of ugly, deafening dissonance in locked venues for hours on end. Their brutal experimental sound peaked on the 1996 album, Soundtracks for the Blind, a two-hour, 26-track endurance test that ranges from ambient sounds and noise to punk and electronica. Despite the amount of music and the number of genres present on Soundtracks, Swans remained laser-focused on producing what is perhaps the most disturbing and alienating music this world had yet experienced.

This seemingly endless album begins with a pair of ambient, sample-heavy songs: “Red Velvet Corridor” and “I Was A Prisoner In Your Skull.” Each of these tracks sets the tone for the rest of the record, incorporating vast soundscapes of chilling synthesizers and surreal samples of mentally ill people reciting monologues. In fact, the most emotionally potent moments on this album are the ones that incorporate spoken word clips that make little sense, but seem strangely at home within the song’s context. “The Beautiful Days” contrasts indescribable darkness with a little girl singing the song title on loop, creating an uncomfortable juxtaposition. “How They Suffer” and “Minus Something” feature people discussing their respective illnesses, including blindness and depression, moments of which listeners will not be able to easily rid their mind.

Although Swans’ use of soundscapes and sampling to extract a reaction from the listener is masterful, their more conventional techniques do so with the same deft touch. On full-band tracks like “Helpless Child”, “All Lined Up” and “The Sound,” a forceful crescendo of vocals, guitars and drums creates an emotional experience greater than the sum of its parts. Listeners will become increasingly uneasy as the assault found in these songs steadily and carefully builds to a level of sheer insanity.

Soundtracks For The Blind is such an enigmatic album that it simply cannot be measured by standard critical dichotomies like “good or bad” or even “enjoyable or not enjoyable.” Perhaps the most fitting critical words to describe Soundtracks is “successful.” Swans obviously set out to disturb, confound and (unfortunately) express a sense of deep mental disturbance that no human should have to experience. Regardless, the band releases these feelings of anguish and madness in a way that brings the listener straight into the minds of the album’s creators (whether they like it or not). In this sense, Soundtracks is the definitive musical equivalent to watching a quality horror film or experiencing a nightmare. Perhaps on an even more accurate and primal level, it is a gory car accident that you just can’t look away from no matter how hard you try.