SWANS’ new music is getting louder and progressively more brutal, already moving on from the dramaturgical long-form songbook of the 2011 live shows – captured on We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head and this year’s studio album, The Seer – into clamourous, stentorian workouts that test an audiences’ endurance and feed on its submission.
When Michael Gira dissolved the first incarnation of SWANS in 1997 he experimented with music and spoken word, and increasingly grew in stature as a songwriter. His subtler music for Angels of Light gained real gravitas from Gira’s emotional maturity. Revived with new blood, SWANS fed on that maturity while Gira reconnected with the group’s earlier raw immediacy.
The new SWANS maintain a punishing live schedule of marathon shows (tonight’s lasted just over two-and-a-half hours), and along the way their music has shed all but a vestige of song form. They are now playing almost exclusively new material – three songs from The Seer tonight, plus three new compositions (“To Be Kind”, “She Loves Us”, “Nathalie”) and just one from the old days: “Coward”, from SWANS 1986 album Holy Money, which they played mid-set.
When addressing the audience, Gira was his usual gentlemanly self, acknowledging applause and reminiscing about a time nearly thirty years ago when SWANS opened for the Fall at London’s Heaven (“I made great use of the glory holes there that night”).
He directed the band with concise directions, a nod or a flutter of a hand carving their monolithic sound into occasionally majestic edifices.
Unfortunately, the operative word there is ‘occasionally’. I think the direction SWANS took on The Seer is brave and invigoratingly passionate, a detour, from the mainline to musical ‘maturity’, into something much deeper, darker and more turbulent. Live, the resultant music should be visceral and immersive, but too often it simply bludgeons the listener’s affections into submission with repetition piled on repetition of it’s most basic elements. I’m all up for climactic nirvana, but when climaxes are signalled so bluntly and then withheld for so long, boredom sets in.
That said, there is a lot of subtlety to SWANS’ sound and fury. Thor Harris plays the sort of percussion – vibes, dulcimer and tubular bells, as well as gongs – that can cut brightly through the orchestral wall of sound, but he also makes judicious use of clarinet, violin, or less common bowed instruments to impart to the music a surprisingly poignant, plangent aspect. His playing is as subtle as it is physically dramatic.
Likewise Christoph Hahn’s double lap steel guitar, which for long stretches is swamped by a noise to which it only seems to add a continuous, headache-inducing skein, emerges when the deluge abates as a finely calibrated wash of shimmering harmonics.
Norman Westberg’s guitar has been shadowing Gira’s since SWANS debuted on record in 1983, and his playing keeps the overall textures knit tightly together. Bassist Christopher Pravdica was on phenomenal form (and superbly represented in the sound mix): I could feel his gravelly, gravid bass emanations in my bones.
And of course, drummer Phil Puleo’s stamina is as phenomenal as the way he translates it into rhythm. He maintains an implicit beat while marking the staccato accents that continually break this music’s flow and meanwhile makes subtle adjustments to allow for Gira’s intuitive conduction of group dynamics. It’s only fitting that it’s his solo coda to “The Apostate”, played on an orchestral bass drum, that brings the concert to an end.
– “To Be Kind”
– “She Loves Us”
– “The Seer”