The normalisation of despair: Swans and Fall of Because

Early industrial didn’t so much point out the warping psychological effects of synthetic totalitarianism as it did aggressively revel in it. There is an unsettling bacchanalian fanaticism to some of these early works that speaks of minds truly unhinged. The contradictions at the heart of urban modernity: living and dying in suffocating proximity to others, yet existing in total isolation, the skewing of moral compasses toward production as the sole value, consumption, disposal, the straight lines of metal and concrete, the eldritch odours of humanity encased in these denialist colonies of atomised psychosis; all this fed the minds behind these sonic creations; works that don’t so much nurture the soul as they do strip away the plastic veneer shakily erected by billboards and the talking heads on TV. Something’s not right. And you are all damaged beyond repair. Living with the desperation brought on by vacuous comfort, with having every physical need met instantly and no conception of what a more spiritually enriching alternative may look like. The post-industrial oppression of the self had only just begun to make itself explicit and universal by the 1980s, but that didn’t stop some canny minds from pontificating on it in their musical outpourings.

Swans’ work of the 1980s speaks of a singular vision and intent, a rarity that so often gives rise to entire cultural movements as others follow in the wake of a handful of visionaries. Many point to the live album ‘Public Castration is a Good Idea’ released in 1986 as the culmination of their creative vision at this time. It could also be considered a missing link in charting the genesis of industrial metal, which is usually traced roughly via the lineage of Kraftwerk, Throbbing Gristle, Killing Joke, and the gradual coalescence of these disparate noises into the form of Godflesh. This only tells the story of how rhythmic simplicity was manipulated in service of increasingly aggressive and bombastic musicality however; sometimes through the application of synthesisers, sometimes through the harsh, staccato guitar interventions of early Killing Joke. We must look to New York’s no wave scene, and Swans specifically, to discover where early industrial metal learned how to embrace nihilism. This music is not so much the story of individual resignation in the face of their futile plight within totalitarian consumer capitalism, so much as it is a euphoric dive headfirst into modernity’s offer of a caricature of a life worth living.

‘Public Castration is a Good Idea’ is both a survey of Swans material as of 1986 and a reimagining of the potentialities of sonic brutality. Rhythmically speaking it is about as simple as you can get. But as we witness the grating static and droning guitars burrowing into our psyche, it becomes apparent that the point is not a display of musicality, rather, this is an exploration of the limits of timbre. Drums slump along at doom metal tempos, offering nothing beyond bass/bass/snare patterns, augmented by the clattering inertia of reverb. The spaces between these artificial heartbeats are filled out with cymbals – either crashing or rolling – which guide us from one death knell to the next. A bass guitar throb follows in the wake of each pummel, filling out the single-minded consistency of this rhythmic satire.

This leaves the remaining instruments to contribute what counts for melody in this terminus of music. Guitar feedback and droning chords soar above the mire, sometimes whipped to excitement by the pounding drums, sometimes a law unto themselves. Discordant keyboards laughingly jeer along as the guitars put melody to a slow death, and with it our aspirations of a life worth living in the face of humanity’s reduction to units of economic activity. Then there is Michael Gira’s vocal ejaculations to guide us through this anti-narrative. He takes small word clusters, slogans too simple to even be considered cliché, and repeats them through various degrees of intensity. Elongating different syllables each time, and varying the aggression and despondency with every iteration. The formula is so simple, so determined, so single minded in its intent to hammer home its message that one can feel the gradual departure of intellect and inspiration with each cycle.

That same year in 1986 three young Brummies unleashed some material they had been working on since around 1983 in the form of a demo called ‘Extirpate’. These would later be collected together with some live recordings and released as a compilation called ‘Life is Easy’ in 1999. The band called themselves Fall of Because, named after a Killing Joke song, amongst the tracks on this demo were some early versions of material that would later find its way onto Godflesh’s debut album ‘Streetcleaner’, released in 1989. This arguably makes this early Fall of Because material not only ground zero as far as industrial metal is concerned, but also a precursor to Napalm Death’s ‘Scum’, and a unique window into the extreme metal scene of the Midlands in the late 1980s.

The sound here is far more primal and organic than the trademark Godflesh swagger. Justin Broadrick is behind the drum kit, offering raw punk takes of what would later flesh out the brutal groove machine of Godflesh’s programmed percussion. The rest of the mix is bass heavy, with guitars a mess of distorted noise and dirt simple two to three chord clusters linked by relentless feedback. Broadrick’s vocals, delivered from behind the kit, are still in their gestation stage on these recordings. His undulations between earthy bellows, spoken word, half melodies, and cries of anguish, articulate the relentless bustle of the music; bleak, crushing, cold, yet somehow alive with activity.

The tracks vary from a dirtier version of the now legendary early Godflesh sound to punky numbers like ‘Middle Amerika’. It is clear that these musicians owed their allegiance to a punk philosophy more than they did metal. Take the groovy yet aggressively infectious call to arms of early Killing Joke, collide it with Swans’ apoplectic drone, add some quintessential Brummie cheer, and you have the first (and to my mind the definitive) statement of industrial metal’s intent.

And this leads on to the live recordings. Of the two, ‘Fight Show’ is more worth your time. The sound quality is far better, the musicianship, whilst sloppy in a good way, is better than on ‘Xmas Special’, and you can hear members of the band shouting at the audience for breaking into a fight halfway through. One of them even tells them to go to a “gothic shithole in town”, declaring that the club they’re playing at is the only place left in the area for punks; a curious window through time for the interested. The performance itself sounds unbearably intense, with Nick Bullen’s iconic barks dominating proceedings, and dragging the music kicking and literally screaming into a hardcore punk direction. The ordered world of Godflesh sounds elegant by comparison. This is much closer to a kind of depressive hardcore punk. Unlike the rest of the compilation, the live performances have little to offer beyond historical curiosity, unseasoned ears need not apply.

In weighing up the virtues of these two albums one can’t ignore the hierarchy of imitation. Fall of Because wear their influences on their sleeve, and it permeates through every pour of ‘Life is Easy’. Much like any young act just setting out, their intent is to brew a concoction from the music they love, which is precisely what they achieved. Just a couple of years later this would mutate into industrial metal as it is widely recognised today. As tempting as it would be lay down an historical marker in ‘Life is Easy’, its significance goes no further than the germinal of an idea, and the antecedents of what was to come. Much like ‘Deathcrush’, or Bathory’s debut, the thing itself is far less remarkable than its cultural standing. Assessed on its own virtues, it does little more than point the way. That being said, it is an essential piece of extreme music from the era, and belongs in the collection of any comprehensive metal or industrial fan. ‘Public Castration is a Good Idea’ by contrast, is something of a last word uttered on the grave of hope through music. Speaking of hyperbole, much has been offered towards 80s era Swans, particularly this album. Taken as an influence on industrial, drone metal, noise rock, or simply as an inside reference point for knowing music fans, it’s all too easy to overstate its importance, its irresistible immersive allure. That being said, as a statement of single-minded intent, its charms cannot be denied. Much like the existence of Ildjarn, the curiosity lies in its very existence, not the material itself. We can append as many lofty words as we like to explain the meaning. But try as we might, these words won’t amount to anything unless the artefact is capable of speaking for itself. Does the impact of ‘Public Castration is a Good Idea’ stand independent of curation?

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