Sunday 31 August 2014

Choice Cuts: Swans - Cop (1984)

Years Active: 1982 – 1997, 2010 – Present
Records to Date: 13
Genre: Noise Rock, No Wave, Industrial
Label: Young God, Neutral, Homestead, Caroline,
Uni/MCA, Invisible, Atavistic, Mute

The Band:

  • Michael Gira | vocals, tapes, production
  • Harry Crosby | bass guitar
  • Norman Westberg | guitar
  • Roli Mosimann | drums, production


A ritual of humiliation. An endurance test.  A glorification of submission, even as it is repeatedly proven weak, unsafe, and horrific.  An ugly tombstone over buried happiness.

The opening riff of ‘Half Life’ never ends, grinding you down as effectively as it grinds the laborer of the lyrics, passive and crushed by an obscene but far from otherworldly tyrant. In fact, the real-ness of their pessimism, unburdened (on this album, at least) by concerns for the metaphysical, adds an urgency to lyrics such as "ambition is senseless don’t make a wrong move work with a purpose"...sounding for all the world like a fellow prisoner of the Machine whispering the "rules" to a newcomer, an outsider, in an effort to help him understand his place and the hopelessness of any attempt to deviate from the Work. The constant downward trajectory of the main phrase drags you ever deeper into this machinery, into the hole. A pervasive atmosphere of meaningless toil and futility numbs you into accepting it.

The lurching stutter of ‘Job’ (track 2) splits this inelegant droning with a confused "waking up" that slowly solidifies into a grooving chant, an effort to regain some feeling of the natural, of something organic. From there it begins slipping into and out of rhythm while equally wavering between the elemental and the structural, between tearing apart and desperately gripping. The song culminates with an exhausted wearing down, carrying the burden of heartache as a mantra until collapse.

The third track ‘Why Hide’ opens on firmer ground, insistent bass and solid, compact drumming providing an ominous foreground for the exorcising of an overwhelming lyrical nihilism. Bathing in a crushing lockstep, Michael Gira shouts why hide the lie?? Over and over as if THIS was the moment he was waiting for to ask the question of his abuser. As if his oppressor was looking through him, dead-eyed, as he recorded the vocals.

Barely a pause for breath between tracks, but those silences are a welcome glimpse outside the isolation this album evokes. These are not dance songs. You are fitted for the collar from the first seconds and it never relents in its exertion of power and domination. The listener is never in a position of control, is never allowed to relate to the dominant perspective even when (especially when) those perspectives are shown. There are only brief moments where the pain and discipline let up to take a deep breath before intensifying. ‘Clay Man’ wastes little time establishing a musical corollary to the dissonant drive into sexual submission. The ghoulish lines "get into this car bow your head down" over painfully grinding mechanical drones twist the Work alluded to in previous tracks into an obedient acceptance. Unexpected chokes and lunges in the noise feel like the moment a bone breaks or a dentist wrenches a tooth free, the onset of a panic attack, an unwilling orgasm. The last minute brings with it an undeniable pulsing heaviness that, almost ironically, forces you to bob your head in time as it sucks the air from your lungs. Maximum volume, indeed.

‘Your Property’ disguises itself well as a rebellious shout at Control, until you realise it as the desperate howls of someone learning it was their own weakness that led to control in the first place. Authority is corrupt and corrupts, Authority is worshipped nonetheless. To be trapped in this is perceived as an ultimate weakness and the vocals grow harsher, the music more nakedly aggressive as it briefly loses a pretence of subtlety. Inward contempt is far more malign than any exterior assault.

Track six, ‘Cop’. This is where it gets dark.  It slithers in sinister, sleazy, initially maintaining a calm demeanour. Proclaiming "the punishment fits the crime" and judging the guilty in a combination holding cell/execution chamber over an unhealthy melody that, despite being nearly atonal, subtly reinforces the infectious reptilian menace of this song's mood. As the beating continues, the music keeps steady as a metronome, placidly describing atrocity with an almost-accessible laid back throbbing. Through the primary section the perspective never fully sets on victim or bystander until finally collapsing into a hypnotic, martial agony that (in a ferocious dichotomy) gradually but spectacularly crumbles and bursts until nothing is left.

After all the build-up of intensity, all the intentional and directed increase in depth and hostility, ‘Butcher’ is all hanging tension. A pause in a relentless attack on the Self juuuusst long enough to see outside and warn someone. "Don’t be a whore you could be screwing yourself", advice given from a position of intimate knowledge of a great darkness. The music never seems to resolve, solidifying the uncomfortable and unsettling feelings elicited by words like "you're in the wrong skin I don't recognise your smell" and "you're too close".

Halting, squalling bursts of feedback scream above a strangled, sluggish drone that sets the stage for the final catharsis of degradation. ‘Thug’ is confrontational and provocative in a sneering passive aggression. "Obedience pays if you use it right", but "the only real thing's misery"…..words finally breaking down into paroxysm and even a seven second fade out feels suffocating and endless.

Having this album on repeat for a few hours in order to write about it pulled me through a significantly more visceral and challenging experience than I expected, even having heard the record quite a few times before. It forces one to inhabit all of the negative spaces it describes in ways most art (and even a great deal of the hostile stimuli referred to in the lyrics) can't come close to replicating, and it left me shaken, stretched thin, and feeling sickly afterward in such a way that almost overwhelms any possible cathartic value.

Words by: James Harris

You can pick up the record everywhere now

Album Details

Cop is the second studio album by American post-punk band Swans. It was released in 1984, through record label K.422.  AllMusic wrote of the album: "Ugly, compelling and overpowering, Cop remains the pinnacle of Swans' brutal early days", calling it "quite possibly one of the darkest recordings ever done

Cop was remastered by Michael Gira in 1992 for release on CD along with the Young God EP. The currently available edition combines Cop and Young God with the albums Greed and Holy Money. The packaging for all issues states that the recording is "designed to be played at maximum volume".

'Cop’ track listing:

1). Half Life 04:18
2). Job 04:46
3). Why Hide 05:50
4). Clay Man 05:05
5). Your Property 04:48
6). Cop 06:47
7). Butcher 04:02
8). Thug 05:12

For more information: