Swans: Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Redemption, 9/8

with Carla Bozulich
Sept. 8, 2014
The Independent

Better than: Praying, getting an MRI, or praying while getting an MRI.

Confessional time: Prior to this gig, I have more or less never listened to Swans. I am a devout industrial/noise/experimental/out-there-music fan, growing up on a steady diet of Nine Inch Nails, Front Line Assembly, Coil, Autechre, and Whitehouse, among others. I became aware of Swans early on, as their name was mentioned often in discussions and articles about other music I was listening to at the time (usually in the context of “rock band that is actually noisier than most noise bands”). For whatever reason, though, Swans just kept slipping past my radar.

[jump] All of this to say that, essentially, I am a Swans virgin. I came into this show with my only expectation being that it would be “noisy” and “loud”; beyond that, I had no preconceptions of what Swans sounded like other than what I’ve read about them over the years, and no particular feeling about Swans, as a band, in any direction.

What I got was not, in fact, what I expected. Swans were loud, but not oppressively so, nor were they particularly noisy, with a couple of notable exceptions. Instead, Swans struck me as the ultimate incarnation of a modern Krautrock band: the music was relentless, hard-driving, and repetitive, all of it wrapped around a technoid song structure. (More on that later.) By the end of it I walked out of the Independent feeling baptized, cleansed, refreshed.

The show started with Thor Harris, the band’s percussionist and secondary drummer, gently coaxing a shimmering drone from a gong. (Side note: A couple days after the show, I discovered an interview with Harris in which he picks “five songs to expand your mind“; interestingly enough, two of his picks, The Necks and Steve Reich, were two artists I kept thinking about as reference points throughout the performance.) One by one, the other band members made their way out to the stage — Kristof Hahn on slide guitar, Harris on aforementioned varieties of percussion, Michael Gira on lead guitar and vocals, Phil Puleo on main drum kit, Chris Pravdica on bass, and Norman Westberg on guitar. Fully assembled, the band cuts a ragtag but formidable figure, the older men looking staid and composed while the younger men look like loose cannons in contrast, in part because Harris has seemingly endless amounts of hair, and wears no shirt on stage. (All of them together look like they were plucked straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel — between Hahn’s formalwear, Harris’s enormous beard and bare chest, and Gira’s long, silvery hair, they look like they’ve seen a lot of shit and have lived to tell the tale.)

After some time, they launch into their first piece, a riveting, slow-burning instrumental, with circling, rotating guitar riffs undergirded by a constant kick drum. This piece, and others throughout the night, build to definite crescendos (all of which come close to breaking into an all-out wall of noise, but never quite do) but feel markedly different from those of other “crescendo-based” bands, the obvious comparison being Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Unlike post-rock bands, who utilize dynamics to ensure maximum drama, the crescendo is not the point for Swans. The point is the repetition — of guitar riffs, of drum patterns, and of vocals (Gira sings like a man speaking in tongues), all of which move and shift subtly in the manner of Reich, phasing in and out, resulting in a hypnotic, mesmerizing experience.

And here’s where techno comes in. In Philip Sherburne’s recent review of Marcel Dettmann’s excellent Fabric 77 mix CD, he describes techno as such: “Techno, for instance, typically has placed far more emphasis on the horizontal plane, with long, gradual crossfades lending the illusion of a seamless and endless continuity, and extreme repetition furthering a sense of stasis-in-movement.” Swans operated exactly the same way, on a horizontal plane, pushing themselves to oblivion and then past it into ecstasy. The effect was so strong that throughout the performance I couldn’t help but wonder to myself: Why don’t I see this crowd out at techno clubs? And simultaneously: Why aren’t my techno brethren here at Swans?

The latter half of the show was calmer, groovier, less overt than the first half, and I enjoyed it more. The band seemed to relax a little, easing up on the intensity and sounded even a bit playful. One last burst of intensity followed this respite, and then it was over — two and a half hours later. It was one of the longest shows I’ve attended, and yet it felt almost half that length. I left the venue feeling awed.

Critic’s Notebook: Neither as intense nor as loud as Sunn O))) or Circle, and while the Independent felt cozy, louder amps would have been a real boon. 

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