SWANS/XIU XIU

(June 24, 2014; THE READY ROOM; Saint Louis, MO)

The Ready Room (photo crdit: JASON STOFF)

The Ready Room (photo crdit: JASON STOFF)

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.

Xiu Xiu (uncredited photo from June 20, 2014)

Xiu Xiu (uncredited photo from June 20, 2014)

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.

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

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.

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

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.

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)

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…


SWANS: TO BE KIND

(YOUNG GOD RECORDS; 2014)

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Have you ever liked something so much that you have a hard time describing it to your friends? Yeah, me, too. As a matter of fact, I’m finding it really difficult to put words and phrases in an order that will convey how utterly smitten I am with the new Swans record, TO BE KIND. To say that it’s “awesome” may just be the understatement of the century and, anything I do say will not give the sprawling (over two hours on two CDs or three records… there’s also a “deluxe edition,” which features a live DVD), majestic beast its just deserts. However, that is my job, so I’m going to try, song by song, to describe the wonders that are Swans’ TO BE KIND. Forgive me for the comparative shopping that I offer in an effort to give you, at the very least, a small reference point in the history of music that you may better grasp the scope of what Michael Gira and band have accomplished here.

Swans (publicity photo)

Swans (publicity photo)

The first disc starts with “Screen Shot,” a minimalist, loopy (as in circumlocutious) track with a great poly-rhythmic drum coda that turns into an unrelenting cacophony of buzzing guitars a little over six minutes in. Gira’s vocals here remind me of Mark E Smith’s very early work with the Fall. Referencing another avant legend, “Screen Shot” very well could have been the great, lost Residents song. “Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)” is a much harsher affair. This is the Swans sound that I was introduced to, lo, these many years ago. The next track, “A Little God In My Hands,” is the funk number. Imagine a brasher, much more abrasive Public Image Limited. “Bring the Sun” is paired with “ToussaintL’Ouverture,” but don’t feel like you’re getting slighted by this coupling… the track is right at 34 minutes long. Now that is bang for your buck! But… is it any good? Let’s examine, shall we? “Bring the Sun” is a shamanistic “Black Juju” filtered through the Cult stopping by for a drink at a Doors reunion at Morrison’s grave, with liberal doses of trance-inducing Middle Eastern chanting. As the name implies, “Toussaint L’Ouverture” is a Satanic church service evoking the name of the Black Napoleon, leader of the 1791 slave revolt in what would become Haiti. Think of it as the New Orleans Hoodoo soundtrack for the Zombie Apocalypso, with disturbing slices of buzz and drone and clatter to up the creep factor. This single, 34 minute track is never dull and never lags; it is as compelling a listen as anything on the album. To follow that up with the shortest song of this collection to end disc one may seem a little odd, but… we are talking about Michael Gira and Swans! “Some Things We Do” clocks in at an economical five minutes. The already claustrophobic feel of the track is enhanced by the low key arrangement, with Julia Kent’s strings adding an odd sense of dread. The song is a litany of, well, some things we do and Gira’s droning vocal delivery is further enhanced by Little Annie’s haunting voice shadowing his own.

Swans (publicity photo)

Swans (publicity photo)

She Loves Us” kicks off disc number two. The first four or five minutes of the piece is yet another minimalist blast of metallic power, featuring Residents-like vocals during the chorus. This leads into an evil sounding instrumental section, very reminiscent of the instrumental section of “Dream Lover” from the 1980 Plasmatics album NEW HOPE FOR THE WRETCHED (in that version, all five members of the band recorded a solo in different rooms… without knowing what the others were playing… it was a beautiful, discordant racket!). The final half of the track slowly settles into the main theme in the form of another mantric, slightly Asian sounding underbelly with a heavily processed tack piano repeating the hypnotic coda. Again, I am reminded of Public Image, with strong vocal and bass similarities, as well as guitars that slash and buzz throughout. A shaker fades in and out of the mix adding to the brutal cacophony of sound, with the final minute and a half coming on like Alice Cooper’s “Killer.” Next, “Kristen Supine” is ten minutes of an ever-tightening web of nightmare-inducing white noise drone from a variety of stringed instruments, guitar and violin being the most prominent. In an album of minimalist performances, the vocals here give the term a new meaning. “Oxygen” is a ludicrously over-the-top James Brown funk workout. And, isn’t that always the best kind? An odd Bedouin throat-chanting kind of thing opens “Nathalie Neal.” Layers of equally odd instrumentation are added – including a repeating guitar riff that could have come from an early Queen record, bells, timbrels and similar percussion instruments, a voice that sounds like an English schoolmarm teaching her students a dance – before the drums and a squadron of swirling, dive-bombing guitars turn up the heat. The title track (“To Be Kind,” in case you’ve forgotten) features an almost recognizable song structure (what could be considered a ballad) before devolving into an angry crescendo of noise over the last couple of minutes. The lyrics, like the first part of the song, are kinda starry-eyed love song stuff. The dichotomy of this track against the sheer brutality of the rest of the album is as jarring as anything else.

Swans (publicity photo)

Swans (publicity photo)

So, there you go. Like the album, it wasn’t easy, but I tried to give you a feel of what TO BE KIND is like. It will most certainly make, not just my top ten of 2014, but most such year-end lists… and, deservedly so.