Show Date: February 26, 2011
Michael Gira has been to town several times in the past decade, both with his group The Angels of Light and as a solo acoustic act. He has not, however, brought his legendary original band to town since it was officially boxed up and stored in the attic back around 1998. In fact, he has rarely even brought along an electric guitar on the tours he has done. So when Mr. Gira reinvigorated Swans last year and announced that they would take on a massive tour, I knew this was going to be an experience that was not-to-be-missed. And last Saturday evening, this was exactly the case as Swans performed a ninety minute set of what very well may have been The Loudest Show That I Have Ever Attended.
Opening with a thirty minute cacophony in which each member of the band took the stage about five minutes after the previous one created a massive build-up: first drums, then hammered dulcimer, pedal steel guitar, bass; and finally guitars to finish off layer upon layer of noisy complexity before Swans launched into “No Words/No Thoughts” from their excellent 2010 release. It was booming drums, bells, and guitars oscillating in some kind of mutilated brilliance.
Gira has an intense stage presence. When not delivering his surreal, psychotic vocals, he paced the stage like a madman, often yelling indecipherable words. The rest of the band stoically performed in the background and were almost invisible except for an out-of-place and shirtless Thor Harris on hammered dulcimer/percussion. The new incarnation of Swans represents every period of their career: Norman Westberg (guitar) from the original lineup, Christoph Hanh (lap steel guitar) from the mid-period group, and Phil Puleo (drums) from the final tour in 1998. He rounds out the band along with Chris Pravdica on bass, who played with Gunga Din (the underrated New York band that Gira’s wife used to front).
A variety of material was performed, including a few older songs, four from the new album and some yet-to-be recorded new tracks. Adoring fans were treated to “Sex, God, Sex” from 1987’s Children of God and a stellar version of “I Crawled,” originally from 1984’s unbelievably brutal Young God EP. Oddly, the highlight of the evening might have been “Jim,” from My Father. The hypnotic bass line alone in the song is fantastic enough, but the rich tapestry of noise guitar that is woven into the track is incredibly impressive, even moreso live.
Sonically, this was a brutal performance. Unfortunately, Swams did not perform anything from their mid-period, which would have made for a much more dynamic set. The focus this time around was violent intensity — which actually made the show a bit one-dimensional. On most of the songs, the group would grind out lengthy, loud introductions before reaching the main portion of the composition. So, while the performance was teeming with bludgeoning dissonance and it was a treat to see Swans in any format, representation from their untouchable 1988-1995 period could have made the show even better. Hopefully, this will be the case next time around. And in either case, it was great to see Gira playing his gorgeous hollow-bodied Gibson again and to be supported by an extremely talented cast of musicians.
“No Words/No Thoughts”
“Sex, God, Sex”