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Astral Auguries: The Swarm aka Knee Deep in the Dead
Dredging up the musical past for future enjoyment.
Social media is a curious beast.
A lot of the time, it’s just people howling into the digital void to quell the raging inanity of their own fragile existence. Other times, it’s adorable cat memes and quality Tik Toks. However, every now and again, I’ll stumble upon someone, somewhere sharing a musical relic from the past and it’ll throw me down a violent rabbit-hole of archived blog posts, overly detailed retrospectives, and long-forgotten discographies.
Such is the case with Canadian outfit The Swarm aka Knee Deep in the Dead.
It all started with a post from Matty Matheson. The Canadian chef, content creator, and media celebrity has an internet presence that’s best described as ALL CAPS, stream-of-consciousness absurdism. He’s often loud and viscerally intense, but he will occasionally present goodies in the form of a friendly shout-out or a delectable food appreciation post.
So there I was, trawling through my midday feed when I came across a screenshot in Matty’s story for a track from The Swarm’s 1999 LP, Parasitic Skies. I can’t remember what track it was specifically and I’ve since deleted the screenshot I took of Matty’s screenshot (how very meta), but I was nonetheless intrigued.
The cover artwork was suitably dark and ominous for my aesthetic tastes: monochrome colour pallette, a picture of huge, roiling clouds and a lone-standing power line, all combined to evoke the sense that a sweeping whirlwind of destruction might form at any minute, laying waste to anything it touches.
Plus, knowing that Matty was an old hardcore head from way back, I figured: “This is probably legit. I should suss this out.” So, that’s what I did.
First impressions: This shit is seriously pissed-off. Opening track “Fucking Invincible at One A.M.” kind of spells that out for you. Angry drum fusillades. A hornet’s nest of angular guitar riffage. Murky bass tone. Pounding rhythmic moments. Frantic, layered screams. Compositionally, everything is thrown together with utter chaos as the goal. It was dope and I wanted to know more.
Right away, the vocals had me hooked. Strangely familiar yet distinct somehow. So, I did some digging. I found the record on Bandcamp through Florida’s No Idea Records, who also put out the first few Planes Mistaken For Stars albums. Another promising sign. Then, looking at the band’s line-up, it all clicked into place: Chris Colohan on vocals, Adam Bratt and Kyle Bishop on guitar, Mike Maxymuik on drums, and Matt Jones on bass.
While Bishop’s name was one I immediately recognised from his work with melodic hardcore luminaries Grade, Colohan is a well-known figure in the underground community from his time in legendary hardcore act Cursed and his later project, the criminally underrated Burning Love.
In this way, listening to Parasitic Skies was akin to an exercise in accretion: witnessing the gradual process of musical growth and influences, through the action of natural forces. As Alexandre Julien from A Bridged Pause notes in a dutifully researched chronicle of the band’s formation and history, in their earliest incarnation The Swarm had “connections all over the Ontario hardcore tree”:
“Before this band even got started a lot of the members had played together in other projects. Chris Colohan, Christian McMaster and Mike Maxymuik had played together in Left for Dead. Mike and Adam Bratt had played together in Gates of Dawn and The Wayouts on top of having known each other since they were kids. Kyle Bishop and Matt Jones had played together in Rebirth and Grade. Kyle and Mike had played together in Acrid.”
Musically, Bishop and Bratt drew influences from acts as diverse as “Chokehold, Acme, Mörser, Misfits, Bolt Thrower, Slayer, Cro-Mags, Black Flag, Sick of it All, and even Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s first album.” And this melting pot is evident all across Parasitic Skies. While the record is considered to be a classic of the power-violence genre, to my ears it’s closer to the ‘90s metallic hardcore popularised by Converge, Cave In, and many others.
Most tracks sit comfortably around a 90-second runtime. There’s an unrestrained intensity on display with “Willing Victim” and “Smooth Running Order,” tracks that splice together savage hardcore punk with a breakneck pace and sludgy drops. “Blink” is barely held together by punishing percussion and a devilishly simple guitar refrain.
When the band does push for extra length, as on the crushing “God’s Little Acre” and “First Saved Message,” these meatier compositions sport muscular breakdown passages accented by stop-start tempo shifts. Meanwhile, the double-kick outro to “Plague” rolls over the listener like a runaway bulldozer.
However, I think it was the album’s closing track that truly sealed the deal for me. Taking the form of a spoken-word sample and the dead air of silence, “Monopolized Reality for the Maintenance of Order” is both disturbing and haunting, a pitch-perfect send-off for The Swarm’s malevolent maelstrom.
Now, if this clip is taken from a film or book, I couldn’t find it. But the track’s narrator appears to describe a woman who dies by falling in front of a train. Did she jump? Was she pushed? Is she a stranger? Maybe a friend or lover? We still don’t know.
But as you’ll see below, it’s about as harrowing and fucked-up as it sounds:
“I guess if you timed it perfectly it would be possible to get that certain, ‘bug-in-a-windshield’ effect. But, no, it wasn't like that. She fell all the way and landed on the tracks with about two and a half seconds left on the clock, broken down like this:
First a confused, ‘What the fuck just happened to me?" look. And then a horrific, abbreviated moment of total comprehension as she looked up. Destiny caught her half-standing, in a doomed escape attempt that could not have possibly been enough. A scream cut short. A forced, unprepared auto-eulogy, interrupted and spread liberally over three-hundred feet of subway line.
Commotion, into which the man disappeared. Shock and bewilderment. The general disgust that couldn't entirely veil the underlying fascination. Lots of shrieking, as if they were all finishing off for her. A half-compliant evacuation. Police. Firemen. Authority to officialized tragedy. Yellow tape. The six o’clock news to tell the people what they never saw.
Monopolized reality for the maintenance of order. Collected at the source and redistributed as is seen fit.”