“The Swans represented everything that was great about New York City in the 1980’s,” a friend said to me. “But the weird thing was, whenever I went to hear them, it seemed like everybody I met in the audience was actually an émigré from fascist Spain.”
Let’s not guess how factual that account is. But it probably tells you most of what you need to know about the Swans: they were as pure, dirty, primitive, and cutting-edge as the old Downtown scene itself, and their abuse/bondage anthems were terrifyingly authentic.
Astute listeners may already have guessed something of Frost’s intense admiration for Swans leader Michael Gira from the title of the next piece (ahem, “We Love You Michael Gira”), or from the Swans-song sample that is buried, unearthed, and digitally obliterated (“Red Sheet”) twice over the course of this piece. But Gira & co. are all over this record, in name, in fact, and in spirit.
The record’s claustrophobically layered sound, at once huge and focused, certainly owes something to that legacy. Frost’s willful misuse of musical equipment is also very Swans, and—well—very punk, very rock ’n’ roll. Most obviously, guitar is a primary instrument on Theory of Machines, usually emitting a scream or a crunch rather than a conventionally produced tone, and the title of “Stomp” perhaps suggests a standard piece of rock equipment, the “stomp pedal” with which a guitarist can trigger a distortion effect. While Frost could also be defined as an “electronic musician”, with tools far more technologically sophisticated than the analog contraptions of the Swans era, he’s clearly bored with the sonic perfection that digital equipment can offer, siding instead with the latter-day Jimi Hendrixes who exploit for expressive purposes the thrillingly wrong and ugly noises of mistreated software and samples.
Listeners “should contemplate turning the stereo down,” says Frost, “They should contemplate checking the connection—should my speakers sound like that?” Still, the execution of each piece is assured enough to make the experience bracing without being repellent. In “Stomp” especially, something violent is being repressed, held in check at every moment, coming forth only in half-formed outbursts before disappearing. When the music finally capsizes completely, the gentle white-noise hush that follows is like a cleansing breath.
— Notes © 2006 Daniel Johnson
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