It’s been 20 years since the release of OK Computer, Radiohead’s seminal album. To mark this event, the band have released an anniversary edition of the record, along with three previously unreleased tracks. I Promise is one of these overlooked songs, and it’s good to finally let it see the light of day with a sombre and slightly unsettling music video.
After their initial break up in 1997, Swans continued to release music in the form of old live recordings. Public Castration features the band at their most visceral and misanthropic.
- “Money Is Flesh” – 12:06
- “Fool” – 8:08
- “A Screw” – 7:27
- “Anything For You” – 9:09
- “Coward” – 8:33
- “A Hanging” – 12:32
- “Stupid Child” – 5:40
- “Another You” – 10:16
On first listen, the oxymoron that is the name of New York City based experimental rock outfit Swans becomes apparent. Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira said of his project on numerous occasions: “Swans are majestic, beautiful creatures with ugly temperaments.” However, there is nothing majestic or beautiful about Public Castration, delivering a grinding, pounding and extremely abrasive hour of brutal live recordings, that really show the band off at their most primal.
A staple of the groups’ early live shows were playing at painfully loud volumes, and Gira earned a reputation for exhibiting contempt for members of his audience, particularly for those he caught headbanging, a practice he hated. Some of these incidents ended in Gira assaulting concert-goers. No wave as a genre perpetuated a negative worldview, serving as a short-lived reaction to what some perceived as ‘recycling’ of traditional rock elements in punk music. With subversion and rejection as a core theme to the music itself, it’s no surprise that the final product is an extremely aggressive one.
Lyrically, Public Castration deals with bitter pessimism and cynicism in typical Swans fashion – lyrics such as “I’m worthless/Put your knife in me” or “I’m your stupid helpless child/I’m ashamed of what I am” performed with a tortured scream show, while simply and repetitively, the protagonist’s deep frustrations and hatred for himself and the rest of the world.
The album opens with four minutes of what can only be described as slow, relentless crashing; a noise-making technique that epitomised the group’s early years before they moved onto a less harsh but more experimental post-rock aesthetic recently. Gira’s yelled, raw vocals persist throughout musically sparse soundscapes. It seems, on closer inspection, that misanthropy in Swans’ music may have been taken quite literally – being deliberately hard to listen to. Yet the pure aggression and hate that Gira brings with his anguished vocals provides a catalyst that taps into the listener’s psyche. This is the kind of album that can only be experienced at uncomfortably loud volumes.
In as illustrious a career as Miles Davis’, it’s easy for some releases to slip through the cracks into relative obscurity.
- “Dr. Jackle” – 5:46 (McLean)
- “Sid’s Ahead” – 12:59 (Davis)
- “Two Bass Hit” – 5:11 (Lewis/Gillespie)
- “Miles” – 5:42 (Davis)
- “Billy Boy” – 7:10 (Jamal)
- “Straight, No Chaser” – 10:35 (Monk)
Saxophonist John Coltrane and drummer Philly Joe Jones, after kicking their drug habits, were welcomed back into Davis’ sextet, returning to form almost without a hitch from the public perspective; the six musicians delivering a harmonious performance on this record, recorded in two separate days over the span of a month and released in September 1958. A significant alteration in the composition of the sections performed here is the departure from the “harmonic constraints” that were imposed by the piano, and by experimenting with an alteration of two different harmonies, the sextet began to flirt with the idea of modal jazz. This is epitomised on the title track, one of only two composed by Davis on this record. Traditional jazz chord progression was abandoned in favour of improvising around modes, which allowed each musician’s personality to shine through, from Coltrane’s feisty saxophone sections to Davis’ more measured and razor sharp trumpet and piano.
While often overlooked and in the shadow of the more developed Kind of Blue, it is the framework laid out in Milestones that allowed its musicians to experiment with this newfound creative freedom. Jones’ drums punctuate each improvisation perfectly as if they were from the same mind. The record also swings hard, with a bass creating a bouncy and accessible rhythm that is easy to tap your foot to. This release is an essential for any music historian and jazz fan. Not only is it the only recording in existence with Davis, Chambers, Coltrane, Jones, Cannonball and Garland, it offers a tour de force around bebop to post-bop, featuring compositions by jazz’s all-time greats.