MUSiC: Cop, Swans, 1984

Amazing music.

Many years ago I was in a short lived group with some friends at sixth-form who were into Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr, Einsturzende Neubauten, and all sorts of other stuff similar to or connected with such bands. What’s often (or is that just sometimes?) called the post-punk/no wave scene. I must admit that, whilst I liked some of these bands and their music enough to stick with the group for the brief period in which it existed, it wasn’t really my scene, man.

Some of the recordings that really reached me in the truly primal unmediated way I like best – and ordinarily at that time that might have been anything from a sweet bossa nova, like let’s say ‘Quite Nights Of Quiet Stars’, by Jobim, to ‘Pachuco Cadaver’ by Beefheart, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Little Green’ or ‘Criminally Insane’ by Slayer – were the early records by Swans. I think that was for several reasons, some of which I’ll go into in a mo’, but possibly chiefly because, as numerous critics and fans have pointed out, this is simply music like no other.

The sheer raw power of the music, and the brutal darkness of Gira’s lyrics, are frequently alluded to in descriptions of this music. But there are a few other things that I particularly like that I don’t feel are usually mentioned. One of these is that – and ok, granted, the lyrics are pretty horrifying – quite a lot of the music has a bizarrely beautiful quality, at least for me, deriving from two factors: its sheer intensity, and the fact it is so unique. Another element is that, for all that it is unrelenting, dark, and brutally minimal, yet there’s a note of looseness and improvisation. Jazz seems hardly the right word, but those are qualities that jazz prides itself on having at its heart.

The loose improv element is most apparent in the incredible drumming of Roli Mosimann, probably the best drummer The Swans ever had, in my view. Also the production has an incredible clarity that stops it dating. Comparing the brutally raw and unprocessed sound here to the compressed and reverb drenched drums of ’80’s Sonic Youth, for example, makes the latter sounds far more dated. Easy-listening this ain’t, and I can generally only take it in little doses these days.

Opening track Half-Life and closing track Thug (opening and closing the original Cop LP*) are, I think, the moments I dig the most. Slow grinding repetitive riffs, bass and guitar locking into huge but minimal slabs of raw distorted sound, and the drums crunching away, but just occasionally showing an inventively syncopated edge, and all moving in an intense slow-motion. Most so-called heavy music sounds like the froth on a weak lager compared with these numbers. And lyrically heavy metal and associated dark/intense genres tend to be utter garbage, kind of prurient teen horror movie type stuff. The darkness of the lyrics here is of an entirely different order.

But Holy $**t, Cop is an amazing and intense ride for the ears, the mind, and the emotions! There really is nothing quite like it. Turn it up loud, and prepare to be terrified, mesmerised, but perhaps also moved, and maybe even awestruck. Definitely not music for all occasions. Cop isn’t uniformly brilliant. But the best is, thanks to its uniqueness, astonishing.

* These days Cop is usually most easily found as part of a variety of ‘early Swans’ type compilations.

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