SWANS: WHERE DOES A BODY END?

★★★★

AN EXHAUSTIVE LOOK AT AN EXHAUSTING BAND

MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Jake Watt
11th July 2020

After years of hearing about the experimental rock band Swans from a few friends, I finally decided to give them a shot.

I downloaded 'To Be Kind' and listened to it while I went shopping. It's a great album for walking around Woolworths to, because it makes you feel like you're on some kind of sinister secret mission instead of looking for those Woolies-brand chocolate chip cookies. Plus, you stop paying attention to the album for a few minutes while you're trying to decide between all these different kinds of toilet paper that they have nowadays, you don't miss anything because when you come back to it... Swans are still playing the same part they were playing before you zoned out. Perhaps the best way to approach the band is to set aside two hours, smoke a joint, and melt into the music.

Marco Porsia's documentary 'Swans: Where Does a Body End?' features interviews with key figures in the band (like Michael Gira, Jonathan Kane and Thor Harris), well as Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, Savage's Jehnny Beth, Amanda Palmer, Kid Kongo, Ben Frost, Devendra Banhardt, JG Thirlwell, and many more of Swans' contemporaries and fans. Porsia, a cinematographer who immersed himself into the inner circle of Swans for five years, filmed rehearsals, songwriting sessions, the grind of life on the road, petty squabbles and transcendent performances.

'SWANS: WHERE DOES A BODY END?' TRAILER

The film begins with the first, early-80s incarnation of Swans. The band's early reputation was fearsome, due to the punishing volume of their live shows and nihilistic, misanthropic lyrics. They were a noise ensemble that terrorised New York's post-No Wave scene, and made Sonic Youth sound like bratty siblings by comparison - singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira layered album upon album, each a strata of sediment building upon - and subtly changing - what came before. A lot of doom and sludge bands (Tool, Mudhoney, etc.) have cited Swans as an influence, as in their early period they took their noise industrial No Wave mayhem to tempos never done before. In the late 80s, great holes started appearing in Swans' sonic monolith, hollows that Gira filled with acoustic instrumentation, female vocals (courtesy of perennial member Jarboe, also interviewed here), and the bleakest strains of gospel, folk, and blues (Howlin' Wolf is singled out for mention).

As well as his own collection of live Swans material filmed since their reunion in 2010, Porsia was granted access to an extensive collection of live tapes and never before seen home videos from their early years.

On stage the stoic, meditative Gira performs as a sort of mad conductor, gyrating and flailing with what's to be perceived as the primal, cathartic release of Swans' music. Omniscient crescendos pile one atop the other as Gira's possessed body movements often work independently of a track's overall thrum.

For fans of the band, this documentary is primo stuff, especially the huge amount of archival footage, which includes some rare shots of Gira performing with his early post-punk band, Circus Mort; Swans recording during The Glowing Man sessions; and the rehearsals of The Knot. As well as his own collection of live Swans material filmed since their reunion in 2010, Porsia was granted access to an extensive collection of live tapes and never-before-seen home videos from their early years.

A revealing profile of frontman Michael Gira and an honest and exhaustive look at the band, Marco Porsia's 'Swans: Where Does a Body End?' does the seemingly impossible by defining a musical collective that has been in a constant state of metamorphosis and reinvention ever since it was created.

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