Feel Good Now
The name has always been deceptive. I was reminded of that as I took a much closer look at the cover and sleeve art to this posthumous live document, Feel Good Now. There’s an iconic photo of Michael Gira onstage under orange lights, stripped to the waist and seemingly wrapped in the Shroud of Turin. Inside the booklet there are four stark black-and-white photos of the band, at that time consisting of Gira, Jarboe, Norman Westberg, Algis Kizys, and Ted fucking Parsons (latter of Prong and Godflesh fame); the shot of Gira is particularly unsettling, what with his expressionless face being overpowered by two bulging eyes staring off into the distance. But that’s just kiddie stuff compared to the front cover, and like I said, I had to look at it several times before I took in everything. It’s a shot taken in Gdansk of a bunch of smiling children holding up little Christian prayer books, a skeletal Michael Gira looms behind them, looking for all the world like a bumpkin Flannery O’Connor antagonist and he’s either waving or giving a fascist salute. Pretty unnerving. Like I said, powerful stuff that is easily misinterpreted.
Feel Good Now is an aural time capsule of various performances during the 1987 (Did you just take a good look at that date? Yet more evidence that the 1980s, contrary to popular opinion, were a prime period for music.) European tour, the last tour that this particular lineup would ever undertake. If this is the end of an era by accident or design, it’s hard to tell as Swans are captured here at their self-immolative best. The songs here are giant walls of black marble, streaked with sweat and piss and blood and cum. Yet there are moments of dark repose that hinted at the widening of musical horizons and the abandonment of the fucking loud only evil Swans of the past, to more reflective plains. It was a move that suited them.
But back to this moment. “Feel Good Now” captures Swans at their primitive best, they’re the airtight engine of pain that Henry Rollins always tried to get his Rollins Band to be. West, Parsons and Kizys are absolutely military in their precision maneuvers metronome noise repetition. Against this Swiss watch of post-apocalyptic noise, it was Gira’s wounded primal screams and Jarboe’s keyboards/samples and backing vocals (a truly jarring juxtaposition from Gira’s voice) that provided the necessary ego and uncertainty. And Gira was a fucking monster, his howls, moans, screams, and (occasionally) words work on the most instinctive visceral level, resonating to our basest instincts and impulses. Theirs was a sexless noise, an androgynous torment. Whereas a grown man screaming over grinding noise now would be dismissed as macho posturing, the Swans somehow sidestep that and head straight for post-gender chaos and confusion. It’s quite a feat.
A Jarboe solo vocal turn like “Blood And Honey” and especially the jaw-dropping torch song “Blackmail” stands out so starkly from the Gira numbers, it smokes and smolders, instead of lashes out indiscriminately. It’s almost scarier for that. The live rendition has the added factor of being able to hear the audience become increasingly restless and hostile, she gave interviews talking about how the audience would just surge at her with hate during these numbers. Something had to give.
Most of the songs are ceaseless, grinding, crawling, funeral marches or even better Bataan Death Marches — propelled by plodding militaristic percussion and guitars as bayonettes — Jarboe’s samples are the sounds of bodies falling and Gira embodies both the cruel victor, poking and prodding, sneering at the prisoner, and the exhausted victim, pushed beyond the limits of the human spirit, retreating to a fetal lump.
Feel Good Now is part of the template for so much to come in popular music is all here — Merzbow, Godflesh, Slipknot, industrial, avant-noise, post-punk, metalcore, Ministry, Neurosis, Sonic Youth, Marilyn Manson — Michael Gira was already there, cutting himself to ribbons, for a musical future he clearly wanted no part of. Let pretenders beware. Swans were real to the most frightening extent possible before self-extinction. Too real, almost — the formula is repeated and watered down even today by lesser hands. Swans music goes straight to the heart and body, rather than the head. Nothing is calculated.