'SWANS: Where Does A Body End?' [Blu-ray]
(SWANS, Michael Gira, et al / Blu-ray / NR / (2019) 2020 / Film Rise - MVD Visual)
Overview: 'Where Does a Body End?' is an intimate portrait of the band SWANS, from their roots as a brutal, confrontational post-punk band that emerged from the same early 1980s era NYC that gave us Sonic Youth (and, somehow, Madonna) through their ill-fated bid at mainstream success in the '90s indie-rock gold rush, through breakups and chaos (on and offstage) to their odds-defying current status as one of the most accomplished and ambitious bands in the world - one whose concerts are more like ecstatic rituals than nostalgic trips back through their most popular songs.
Blu-ray Verdict: SWANS has always been a collection of singular performers, but there's been one constant since its formation in 1982 - singer, songwriter Michael Gira.
With unfettered access to hundreds of hours of Gira/SWANS archives of never-seen-before recordings, videos, and photographs, 'Where Does A Body End?' brings us along the path they needed to carve for themselves.
The film is many things, a musical history, a time-capsule, a tour diary, a concert film, but mostly it's the story of a life in the arts, frequently difficult, spanning decades without a safety net, creating the work because Gira says What else am I going to do?
As bandmate Thor Harris notes, Michael is not a fearless person, but he is a fearless artist.
To my way of thinking, if you listen to SWANS you instantly find yourself believing that Michael Gira is indeed the closest thing we have to a musical shaman; a sonic demi-god, a martyr hurling his mind, body, and soul ceaselessly into the maelstrom of sound, spewing catharsis from every pore!
The story here begins not with the band itself, but with its mentor and creator, the aforementioned Michael Gira, a man of unparalleled talent.
From a young age, Michael felt independent and debased from society, a result of leading a relatively poor life in the slums of New York.
These conditions instilled into him a sense of aggression and rage that he started to tap into after the dissolution of his previous band, Circus Mort, a psychedelic post-punk outfit.
Calling his new project SWANS, Michael enlisted the help of Jonathan Kane, Sue Hanel, Roli Mosimann, among others, and created a visceral and challenging sound that changed and morphed over the years.
From the more metallic and industrial-sounding no wave records Filth and Cop, which granted them comparisons to their peers in Sonic Youth, to the more artistic, melodic and expansive records in the later years of their first formation – such as White Light from the Mouth of Infinity and The Great Annihilator - Michael Gira was never afraid to experiment with sound and was very strict and direct in what he wanted the auditory experience to be.
This, of course, led to the notion that he was a difficult person to work with it, a result of his combative nature.
Despite that, Michael and SWANS persisted for fifteen years and many were its collaborators. The most notable of those is, undoubtedly, Jarboe.
Owner of an incredibly powerful voice, Jarboe in many ways influenced Swans’ sound and persuaded Michael to try singing instead of shouting.
This not only gave way to a new era of sonic force within the band but also cultivated a relationship between Michael and Jarboe – a relationship which would meet its untimely end with the dissolution of Swans after the release of Soundtracks of the Blind.
After the demise of SWANS, Michael Gira turned his head to other ventures, most notably Angels of Light, a quieter and more lyric and acoustic-based group compared to his previous band.
It was at this point that Michael started to experiment with the notion of creating songs in an acoustic setting and adding orchestration on top at a later stage, something he would continue doing well into the second formation of SWANS.
That same formation, which is also the most well-known, came to be in 2010 and consisted of Christopher Hahn and Norman Westberg on guitars, Phil Puleo and Thor Harris on drums and percussion, Christopher Pravdica on bass and, of course, Michael Gira on guitar and vocals.
Revitalized and with a newfound purpose, this second incarnation of Swans released four immensely powerful records – My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, The Seer, To Be Kind and The Glowing Man.
This last one would also prove to be, once again, the last record by SWANS. Or at least, of the band’s second incarnation. A final live album, Deliquescence, and a world tour would bring the second end to SWANS.
Thus, 'Where Does A Body End?' is an exhaustive portrait of Gira’s perpetual resilience, without but mostly within the most uncompromising, beautifully self-destructive band to ever be spawned.
Director Marco Porsia has done a huge service to the world by bringing forth this incredible work of musical and visual art and my only hope is that it garners the worldwide viewing attention that it truly deserves for all concerned. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.78:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs and comes with the Special Feature of:
Extended Cut (161 minutes)
'SWANS: Where Does A Body End?' [Blu-ray] is out September 11th, 2020 via MVD Visual.
'SWANS: Where Does A Body End?' Trailer