"I know it's a Monday night. Can you tolerate one more?" Michael Gira asked the crowd more than two hours into the show. It wasn't really even a question because Gira already knew the answer. Swans then played its final song: the sprawling, apocalypse-eclipsing "The Apostate." Starting out with a slow pace and pedal-steel shimmer, the song took ominous and decisive steps up a teetering mountain of sound.
Norman Westberg, as he did for much of the show, sat patiently waiting as the build escalated, like an elite warrior waiting for his time to enter the fray and bring about a decisive and victorious conclusion. After the first build, Phil Puleo and Thor Harris blew through whistles as though they were herding in an army of children after a school recess. Was this some kind of sonic conceptual joke?
Maybe so, but it was also odd and disorienting -- in a completely original way, considering the instrumentation this band usually employs. When the whistles ended, the entire band hit a great note together and flooded the room with caustic, cleansing vibrations with a series of strikes of instrumentation as though repeating the sound that caused the universe to begin in ancient Indian mythology.
At some point, Gira put down his guitar and danced around wildly, gesturing like some kind of shaman-cum-hip jazz conductor. He did that dance between shouting, singing, chanting and wailing into the microphone the band's soul-searing lyrics, words that each time he uttered them sounded like he was cauterizing a wound in his mind. His catharsis and that of the band transferred to the audience. When all the sounds finally died down, everyone came forward to the enthusiastic cheers of the audience and Gira said, "We want to live forever inside your bellies."
Things kicked off with "To Be Kind," a disorienting and discomforting song that seemed like it came out of the hidden soundtrack of Beyond the Black Rainbow. Like these guys were reaching directly into mythical archetypes and giving them musical expression. Was it the extreme volume and shifting dynamics that affect their audience on a subconscious level? Maybe so, but that's how it felt to be at this show in general.
The elemental force of the guitar sound of "Avatar" felt like standing next to a combination blowtorch and sputtering livewire. Gira and Chris Pravdica faced each other and would have been headbanging right into each other, but instead they moved with the irresistible cadences of the music as each beat came crashing down in a syncopated rhythm. Blossoming distortion characterized much of Gira's guitar sound right out of his two 4X12 Orange cabinets. His riffs resonated, but when he muted the strings, they didn't ring out, so there was no delay or reverb or chorus involved. Gira has just mastered the use of distorted tone, and he makes it sound like it can't have a clean source.
Gira more or less conducted the group, guiding the band through decrescendo and silence and shifting tonalities and dynamics with gestures. Combined with the clearly intuitive sense these guys had for each other's abilities and instincts, it made for electrifyingly heady moments that made even the most elongated period of repeated riffing seem to be carrying the crowd careening on a tidal wave of emotion.
These songs make you think of what it would be like to stand on the edge of an active volcano minutes or days from erupting. Christoph Hahn haunted the edges of the boiling magma flow of the other players and when Harris and Puleo played the dulcimer, it felt like that scene out of Exorcist II: The Heretic, an awful movie with some fantastic sections, when one of the characters finally visits the place where he can speak with a child possessed by Pazuzu. Rarely has a band been so harrowing, overwhelmingly intense and magnetic in equal measures. At times it felt like you were being bludgeoned with the sound, but those blows were beating the worst parts of your soul out of your psyche -- leaving only love, gratitude and inspiration. These musicians/magicians were an unrelenting force on stage the entire time and heavier than almost anything you'll ever see on stage without being a bummer.
Very much without preamble or engaging the audience between songs, Jamie Stewart came on stage and played his own kind of emotionally stirring and cleansing music. He started with the tensely delicate "Dangerous You Shouldn't Be Here." Throughout the set, Stewart switched instruments pretty much every song, alternating between an electric autoharp, an SG, a modified MicroKorg with another device wired on top and this black-box device with only knobs on top to generate and tweak sounds.
"Falkland Rd." was appropriately dark and starkly presented. "Rose of Sharon" had a synth sound reminiscent of Gary Numan but was more somber and haunting. Before "Wig Master," played with the aforementioned black box, Stewart held up a slingshot and tried to hit this gong hanging from a mike stand with Mentos. He may have hit it, but he ended up throwing the slingshot at the gong and then when that missed or failed to make the right noise, he got up and kicked it over -- a kind of comical moment in an otherwise gloomy but powerful set of music. Maybe "gloomy" isn't the right word: There's something about Stewart's music that feels like it's expressing and expunging everyday pains with an uncannily poetic majesty.
Toward the end of the set, Stewart set up a beautiful synth beat with the MicroKorg and played guitar over top. At first it sounded like it had to be one of his own songs, but it was a completely reinvented version of "Fast Car" by Tracy Chapman. Stewart ended the set with the devastating "Black Keyboard." In that song, his gift for evocative restraint, minimalist composition and hushed, but utterly un-muted intensity came to the fore. Without those qualities, the subject matter of Stewart's songs and the words he sings would be completely impossible to take. Sitting onstage and executing these songs was an act both of bravery and inspiration.
Bias: Swans has been one of my favorite bands for years. They provide the perfect blend of artistry and catharsis. Xiu Xiu is one of the most interesting and innovative projects in music of the last decade.
Random Detail: Ran into filmmaker Kim Shively, Taylor Iversen of Black Sleep of Kali, BJ Serekis formerly of The Skivies and Andrew Novick at the show. Also, for pretty much the entire Swans set, Jamie Stewart was standing next to me and Gira would favor him with goofy faces and big smiles, as a human trickster should.
By the Way: Swans' new album, The Seer, is one of its very best.
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