Marginally associated with the no wave scene at first, their original sound was slow and extremely heavy, with live performances that were often so brutal and physical that in a number of instances certain audience members were made ill, police were called and venues were shut down. This early physical sound is possibly best heard on the live album Public Castration Is a Good Idea.
Their initial style shifted a little by the time Swans released seminal twin albums Greed and Holy Money. The music had sped up, at times being even more punishing than their earlier output. Drum machines and samples were slightly more prominent. Michael Gira was joined vocally by Jarboe which gave the band a broader sonic range. Tracks featuring Jarboe were often quieter, even pretty, acting as counterpoint to the more harrowing themes on the albums. Over time, this style would come to dominate the Swans’ output, although they somehow seem to have been able to make a strummed acoustic guitar seem as brutal as their earlier amped-up assaults. The lush instrumentation of their albums from the late 1980s and the 1990’s anticipated the birth of post-rock.
Swans eventually broke up in 1997; Gira went on to release some solo work, later forming the band The Angels of Light, who continue many of the themes and styles found in (later) Swans. Jarboe releases solo work and frequently works with other bands and artists; recently she released an album with Neurosis, a group clearly heavily influenced by Swans.
In 2010, Michael Gira re-formed the band. A notable change was post-reunion Swans did not have Jarboe as part of their group, which makes for post-reunion album to have significant tonal differences, and as heard on leaving meaning. (2019), other female voices.