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Swans' frustrating yet mesmeric finale...
on 7 August 2005
"Soundtracks..." is the culmination of Swans' career and theoretically touches upon all the styles they ever had. In practice however, it is a continuation of "The Great Annihilator" (a masterpiece, by the way) dissolved in a slew of ambient pieces. Two of these kick off the first disc, winding their way into the gigantic weary heave of 'Helpless Child', then there's another build-up of glimmering acoustic guitar before the nastily urgent 'Yum-Yab Killers', and so on.
Were you to listen in a darkened room with the windows open to let in the freezing night air and with all your concentration muscles at absolute optimum power, this would without a doubt be the masterpiece everyone says it is. But how many of us have the time and energy to do that? Listened to in a conventional manner, "Soundtracks..." is uneven and disorienting.
Several of the instrumentals have a swirling, crashing chaos to them, like the birth or death of an entire planet - they're definitely not ambient in the Brian Eno sense. 'I Was A Prisoner In Your Skull' contains a hilarious spoken rant that ends on an intriguing cliffhanger. 'Hypnogirl' is terrifying; sung from the apparant POV of a parasitic worm (charming) in an inhuman snarl somewhere between a wicked witch and a rusty gate hinge; Jarboe continuing to be able to make all the death metal goons pee in their pants out of raw, hardcore fear. 'The Sound' is a breathtaking song, a cresting, oceanic roar.
But elsewhere, it's kinda difficult not to fidget. 'Empathy' and 'Animus' are certainly skeletal, tremulous post-rock things that anticipate Low, Sigur Ros, etc., but their utter lack of forward motion can make 'em seem tedious unless you're really in the mood. There's no pummelling industrial here; the 'intensity' comes from too big a dive into overwrought goth territory, all cavernous echo, brushed cymbals and Gira's astonishingly deep voice, which at times makes Nick Cave sound like Billy Corgan. The worst offender is 'YRP' which is almost inert for three-quarters of its length and pounds leadenly and joylessly for the final minute. The live stuff is poorly recorded (why not just include the studio versions?...it's a studio album, isn't it?) and Jarboe's 'Volcano', while great in theory and containing another malicious lyric about wanting to cannibalise Courtney Love (at least that's how I read it) is poorly mixed, with the techno-dance beats slowing up and speeding down in a presumably intentionally aggravating manner.
Like all double albums, then - loaded down with excess chaff.
It doesn't matter, though, because Swans were inherently magnificent and spectacular and pitilessly godlike even when they were annoying the hell out of you.