A Swans performance is an exercise in stamina, for the six men on stage and everyone watching and listening to them. It is also a relentless spectacle in sound unlike most, if any, other live shows.
Michael Gira is the band’s director and its primary personae. He directs and conducts his band through its compositions with a passion and intensity that feeds the ferocity with which each song is rendered. But Swans don’t compose “songs” in the traditional sense. Rather they arrange waves and barrages of noise and sounds into aural sculptures that are all at once punishing, hypnotic, cosmic, deranged and pretty.
Ear plugs were available to the several hundred fans who attended Wednesday’s show at the Beaumont Club, and they were necessary. I’ve been at one or two louder shows, but neither was as relentless and demanding as this show. The rib-pounding sound added to the experience, giving physical might to music that is molten and potent enough at normal sound levels.
Describing a Swans show is a challenge, like trying to describe live acts of violence and destruction. There are lots of detonations and hemorrhaging of sounds. But there’s plenty of construction, too, as if sculptures are being welded and pounded together before your eyes, with improvisation and by design and with more filigrees and fine details than initially meet the eye (or ears). Given the volume and viscosity of the music, the sound was surprisingly adequate, though it often took some intense listening to pick out the discrete parts: the guitars, the lap steel, the bass, the clarinet, the drums and percussion. (Granted, the earplugs made that harder, too.).
Gira runs the show, calling audibles like Peyton Manning at the line of scrimmage. Gira told The Star recently: “I always want ... to keep the music changing. You discover new things in (songs) as you play them ... but they sound different live. They’re not orchestrated. And they’re played more intensely.”
That was all evident and palpable Wednesday night, the way the band was challenging itself, taking itself in impulsive, unchartered directions. It was written all over Gira’s face, which bore the expressions of a man in various stages of ecstasy, catharsis and hypnosis. Even the more “predictable” moments of prolonged, thunderous repetition, when a riff is jack-hammered mercilessly for several minutes, produced moments that were transcendent and patently sexual: prolonged tension, then release. If there was a break in the mood, it was when the band tore into “Coward,” a track from “Holy Money,” released in 1986. It felt of another era and the closest there was to a formal song, yet Gira and the band spared it no intensity.
Two hours after the first heavy sound was struck, the band took its bows. Gira looked as radiant as he did exhausted, his shirt soaked with sweat and his long, silver hair, too. And as the several hundred fans in the place filed out, many looked spellbound and drained by an evening of so much brutal beauty.