SWANS – White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (1991)

Review by: Tristan Peterson
Album assigned by: Charly Saenz

A Nihilist Anthem For The Saved, And The All-Too Damned

Big thanks to Charly for accidentally assigning me an album I’ve known for a while, and also an album which I like. This’ll be fun.

So, to get backstory on just what a Swans is, they are an experimental rock band from New York City, although they started as one of the most violent No Wave acts to emerge from the scene. Though they still do have some of the loudest shows ever-behind Sunn O))) and My Bloody Valentine-the way frontman Michael Gira presents the sonic formations of Swans makes this volume essential.

White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity came out in 1991, which was a very interesting time period for this project. No longer were they the No Wave powerhouses of the early 1980s. At this point, the seminal Children Of God was about 4 years under Swans’ belt. From 1987 to 1991, Swans put out two live albums, Feel Good Now (1988) and Anonymous Bodies In An Empty Room (1990), and one studio album, The Burning World (1989). While their live records were received about as well as live records usually are (that being, no one really cares besides the die hard fans) [that being said, check out Anonymous Bodies, it’s a truly great record], The Burning World more than a bit of  failure. See, after the unexpected popularity of their cover of the only Joy Division song most people know (need I even name it?)-and yes I do mean unexpected, it’s pretty shitty-the band was signed to Uni records. The album was produced by both Bill Laswell and Michael Gira, and had a drastic change in sound for Swans: not only were there ACOUSTIC instruments, but it took influences from things like the token, all too terrifying, all too assoicated with Yanni WORLD MUSIC, as well as touches of FOLK MUSIC. Gone was the aggression of their previous albums, save for one song (Let It Come Down), and in was the tacky Blind Faith covers and “sensitive” side of Gira and co-Swans-head Jarboe. The album was panned commercially and fairly critically, and Gira has said on record that he hates this album.

So with all that backstory, what is White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity? Is it any good? Could Swans actually pull out of the godawful nosedive that was The Burning World?

The answer to the last two is “yes” and I’m about to explain the first one.

Obviously, what ever bug that crawled into Gira’s ass at the time of recording The Burning World had since died and fallen out, as is easily told by the opening track, “Better Than You”. Of course, many veteran Swans listeners may cringe at the opening baby sounds, like I do whenever I listen to it, but so long as you can make it past, you are surely in for a treat. “Better Than You” is exactly what made Swans great, with a few added twists. The acoustic guitars are still here, but used more sparingly. Melody has become increasingly apparent, but back is the old aggression, and unrepentant, crippling nihilism we so expect from Gira’s sonic, lyrical and authorial expats. Better than you is a fairly driving piece, with loud, vibrant percussion, swirling synths, intense repetition, and, like many Swans pieces, features Gira’s droning semi-monotone, bassy voice. The second track, “Power And Sacrifice,” expands on similar motifs to “Better Than You,” but in a slower, more brutal context. Even two tracks in, and most listeners’ bodies will begin to feel the weight of this maw of hopeless depression. Thankfully, there is a slight repreive in the third track, “You Know Nothing”. It’s a ballad-y type piece, in something that you could say resembles a major key at times. I say slight, as the lyrics-which I’ll cover later-continue to weigh down on the psyche. Track four, “Song For Dead Time”, does what “Power And Sacrifice” did. It continues to explore the themes and areas established before it, to much better success. “Song For Dead Time” is a disturbing acoustic ballad, whose synth accentuations make Jarboe’s whisper of a vocal all the more unnerving. By this point, if you don’t want to have your day ruined, I recommend you turn the album off now, as it doesn’t get much darker than the first four tracks, but it certainly does not get any happier.

That is, except for “We Will Survive,” track 5 of the record. In my opinion its the weakest song on the album, as the repetition we know Swans so well for does not work here, which is a shame. All in all, its a bland, throwaway track. Thankfully, this is quickly fixed by the end of the first half of the album, the crooning denouncement of romance, “Love Will Save You”. The song is like a cascade of frequencies crashing down on your ears as the world around you falls in on itself, in all its shimmering majesty.

Now we come to the true highlight of the record, and the beginning of the second half, “Failure.” Although it is a very simple acoustic song, even simpler than “Song For Dead Time,” the atmosphere set up by the simple, four chord song is the pinnacle of this album, and even the album that follows White Light, Love Of Life (which is essentially a clone of this record, with some minor changes, but its still very enjoyable). There is something about the strumming pattern, the keyboard, and Gira’s voice blending so perfectly to create an anthem for hopelessness, a suicide swan song, a nihilist calling in fact. Far and away, “Failure” is the best song on the album, and its emotional weight is near indescribable. So, if nothing else, I implore you investigate that song.  

Sadly, this atmosphere is not well upheld, as the following track, “Song For The Sun,” is all too much like “We Will Survive,” and it has the same issues plaguing it, but it is even MORE out of place, as it is almost upbeat at times, which breaks the unrepentant hopelessness this album hopes to provide you with. “Miracle of Love” is a sort of second rate version of “Love Will Save You,” but is enjoyable in its own right. It sort of bridges the atmospheric gap between “Power And Sacrifice” and “Failure,” though, so its more than made up for in that respect. “When She Breathes” is another highlight of the album, and is sort of like the Jarboe variant of “Failure,” which is obviously welcomed by me. It has a bit more of a bite to it than Failure, so it is more angry than it is hopeless, but is still an amazing work. Sadly, the album ends on a dud and a half, as “Why Are We Alive?” sounds like a cheesy late 80s, average rock song in the Swans lens, and “The Most Unfortunate Lie” is a heavily watered down “Failure,” almost to the degree where it might be considered success.

The lyrics on this album are second to none, as is exemplified on “Failure,” and thats what makes so much of this album work, but also not work. When you have songs talking about how Love will save you from all damnation because you’ll be too stupid to realize you’re in hell, and how everything is meaningless and you will die an insignificant shit stain on the universe, you can’t have songs about how you will also make it through this dark time, no matter how well written they are. Another problem, as exemplified on “Why Are We Alive?” is how the lyrics completely conflict with the music being shared. I’m pretty sure the explanation is self explanatory for a song called “Why Are We Alive?,” but similar issues occur in “Song For The Sun.”

Overall, this album would be much much better if it had a more consistent tone and mood throughout, and if were able to keep up that crushing feeling so many of the songs offer, I might call this record a 9, or even a 10. But its inconsistencies in mood and quality drag it down. Now, I’m sure many of you will here readers like this record more than I do, so I encourage you to listen to it, but also don’t be surprised if it disappoints.

Best Tracks: Failure, Love Save You, Song For Dead Time, Power And Sacrifice

Worst Tracks: Why Are We Alive?, Song For The Sun

7.2/10
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Author: tomymostalas

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