(June 24, 2014; THE READY ROOM; Saint Louis, MO)
At some shows I’ve been to in recent years, particularly smaller ones, I’ve looked at the audience as much as the performers, trying to gauge people’s reactions and suss out what kind of experience they were having. When you’re dealing with a noncommercial act like Swans, the Michael Gira-led entity that inhabits one end of the post-punk spectrum, you can’t help wondering about the fans and why this kinda assaultive sonic maelstrom appeals to them. This is not to pass judgment, as I AM such a fan. It’s just… why? How can long, discordant, punishing slabs of dark drone and indecipherable lyrics be life-affirming? Do you leave such an experience in a good mood, and just say to your concert-going pals, “Man, that was great!” the way you would after a normal concert? I dunno. But I did indeed utter “That was pretty amazing” to MY companion for the night, and I did experience SOME kind of catharsis. But I’m not sure what it was. I do know I won’t forget it.
I wasn’t overly familiar with Swans going in; I’d heard a few bits and pieces, and read some articles about them. But never had a chance to experience their sound up close before. Warning was given via a sign on the door that the concert was going to be extremely loud (helpful hint, that!), so ear plugs were clearly in order. But actually, I’ve been to louder, even though it WAS a punishing volume throughout. Things kicked off with a bizarre half hour opening stint by an incarnation of Xiu Xiu that included only founder Jamie Stewart. I’d been looking forward to hearing some songs from Xiu Xiu’s early CDs that I happened to own, but it was not to be. Stewart sat at a synth console and delivered a piercing monolithic tone that gradually got louder and louder, and gradually added other drone elements until it evolved into a squall of noisy dark ambient matter that was alternatingly hypnotic and tedious. He never said a word and never looked up, and I wouldn’t have even known this had anything to do with the Xiu Xiu I once listened to unless I’d done some research the next day. One thing’s for sure; you don’t see this kinda thing on stage in Saint Louis very often.
The wait for Swans was short and, it’s pretty clear when you lay eyes (and ears) on a crazed codger like Michael Gira that you’re in the presence of a twisted original. It seems almost irrelevant to mention song titles, because at a show like this, only hardcore fans would care about such a thing. Swans “tunes” are really long, really repetitive and singularly immersive; variety is not what you’re in for at a show like this. But, okay… “Frankie M” and “A Little God in My Hands” were the first two tunes. Layered gongs kicked off the former, and your ears had no choice but to instantly surrender to the onslaught. I was distracted almost immediately by a comely young woman swaying to the sound, yes, swaying to a sound that most of my friends would’ve bolted from within minutes. Heck, I thought girls liked dancing to stuff with a beat and a sing-along chorus. But damn, even the weirdest and most anti-commercial of bands gotta have their female followers, I suppose. “ …God… ” began with a slashing, repeated chord or whatever you’d call the combination of tones that kicked this one off. I was reminded of Eno’s oblique strategy card, “Repetition is a form of change,” a notion that Eno pioneered and that Swans have seemingly taken to another level. No one would be able to lose themselves in this kind of sonic overload if it was truly just one continuous, unvarying tone but, the fact is, Gira’s band conjure a gargantuan symphony of strident yet structured noisetronica that is ferociously willful and ultimately transfixing. The crowd was apparently riveted, although one girl sitting next to me was peacefully reading a paperback novel half the time, and I wondered about her temperament. I wouldn’t have been able to get through a single page of any book with this kinda music in the background.
Gira has a trademark way of holding his hands out to each side, shaking them a little, symmetrically, sometimes with eyes closed. He’s a curious figurehead with his long hair and piercing gaze, and seems genuinely appreciative that he gets to do this sort of thing. My companion and I chatted about how this sort of music can only exist and, in fact, progress, if its makers are utterly serious and committed to what they do. Not an issue at all with Swans. The cacophonous “The Apostate” was next, and it was thunderous, with atonal chord play, primal sludgy ambience and a sound that struck my ears as “Da U WOOM/ Da U WOOM!” It went on for a long, long time and, again, I couldn’t help watching the Ready Room patrons, most of whom watched with rapt attention and, a few of whom attempted to move their bodies in one way or another to this crazed sound. I wouldn’t want to hear this sort of thing every day, but experiencing it live was a pretty singular experience. Something almost approaching “tonal variety” came with the song “Just A Little Boy,” which made me think of the eerie Talking Heads song, “The Overload.” Straight-up dirge-y angst, the lyrics go, “Now I sleep in the belly of woman/And I sleep in the belly of man/And I sleep in the belly of rhythm/And I sleep in the belly of love.” Maybe not manifesto territory here, but Gira is clearly saying SOMETHING, and trying to do so in the context of a long, assaultive drone makes it brave and interesting. It was actually one of the more emotionally resonant moments of the evening.
Fire trucks appeared in fromt of the Ready Room two different times, once early in the evening, and once during “Don’t Go,” when the flashing red lights got the attention of anyone near the windows (including yours truly) and made me wonder whether a fire code violation had occurred, or whether the crew outside had been tipped off about something that needed to be “watched” at this show. No doubt the attendance was amazing; the line waiting to get into the RR was thrice longer than I had been anticipating. Gira gets good publicity. Anyway, the sound slabs during this number were particularly intense, with two or three bass notes played insistently while granite chunks of guitar, percussion and keys were hurled out into the crowd with abandon. My mind wandered (and a few Shock Top drafts added splendidly to the mood), and I thought that if Gira’s story was ever made into a movie, either Michael Madsen or Guy Pearce would have to be cast as the lead. Scruffy intensity was definitely called for. The one-two climactic punch of “Bring the Sun/Black Hole Man” was sometimes evocative and haunting, sometimes poundingly nasty, with lyrics almost impossible to decipher (although I’d swear I heard the phrase “Joseph is riding” once or twice). But, hey, lyrics are not the point of a Swans song. Immersive surrender to the darkest of dark waves is more in order. And, actually, I left in admiration for the perverse, primal simplicity of what Swans have to offer. Though there is little pleasure or comfort to be had in a show like this, the catharsis is real, and the visceral release is palpable. It’s important for music to stake out EDGES to explore, places where few dare go and declare, “Okay, this is what’s out here in THIS place, check it out if you’re so inclined.” I’m grateful to have experienced that thing that Swans do, even if I’ll be scratching my head for a long time over what it means, and how that girl could’ve gotten through a good portion of her book with Swans as the background soundtrack. Each to their own in this world, truly…