Swans at Fine Line, 9/21/12

Swans at Fine Line, 9/21/12
Photo By Erik Hess

Swans with Xiu Xiu
Fine Line Music Cafe, Minneapolis
September 21, 2012

Michael Gira and his decidedly mercurial band of Swans rolled through the Fine Line on Friday night intent on testing out the limits of the sound system at the rather intimate club as well as the patience of the fans who gathered to see the legendary experimental post-punk outfit. The band reemerged in 2010 after a 13-year hiatus with the critically acclaimed, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, and laid waste to First Avenue nearly one year to the day prior to this show.

Now, Gira and his dissonant crew made a triumphant, thunderous return to Minneapolis with an expansive 2-hour set that featured an intense batch of brand new songs as well as a few tracks from the recently released double-album, The Seer, a record which is nearly twice as long as its predecessor but packs just as potent of a punch, though the songs are far less immediate, especially in a live setting.

See Also:
Swans at First Avenue, 09/20/11
Swans reuniting for new album and tour

The set started with the unassuming six-piece band leisurely taking their places on the crowded stage, with the group easing into a haunting but relaxed melody while Gira briefly left the stage. When he returned, he settled his sheet music on its stand, picked up his guitar, and led the tentative opening song, "To Be Kind," gently forward. The 18-minute track eventually exploded towards the end, as we all knew it would, with Gira's piercing guitar adding to the wall of cacophony. After a knowing nod to the crowd and a cursory "thank you very much," Gira intently moved on to the next sonic excursion of the night.

"Avatar" was next, with Gira animatedly conducting the band through the churning, ominous tone at the start of the number before it unfolded into a raw, visceral fury which found Michael dropping to his knees and screaming as the forceful song erupted. Each number played during the band's seven song set relentlessly crafted a menacing mood while consistently pushing the boundaries of what a song can be.

Swans at Fine Line, 9/21/12
Swans at Fine Line, 9/21/12
Photos By Erik Hess

Drummer Phil Puleo joined forces with Thor Harris to create a thunderous rhythm at the start of another new song, "Fun," with the band locked in and loaded for most of the number, with everyone watching Michael for subtle musical clues as to where he was taking the untamed track next. But, like any mad maestro, Gira wasn't afraid to tell the band he wasn't happy with their pace or tone, and did so frequently throughout the storming set. During the end of "Fun," Gira was unhappy with Puleo and bassist Chris Pravdica, and impatiently dialed down his guitar squall until they got their rhythm back into step with the rest of the band.

The tension between Gira and Puleo was again evident on a reworked version of "Coward," which was originally featured on Swans stellar 1986 album, Holy Money, and was the only older song they dusted off during the set. The visible friction between the band actually imbued the roiling number with a fierce acuity, and only drove the group to play louder and faster. Original Swans guitarist Norman Westberg and longtime member Christoph Hahn (on lap-steel) provided an edgy, metal pulse on the track, which built to a violent, vicious end, with Gira's voice straining just a bit as he shrieked the sinister lyrics.

The center-point of the set was a sprawling, 35-minute rendition of "The Seer," which changed tempo and structure many times throughout the adventurous sonic excursion, keeping both the crowd and the band interested as to where the track was going next. Gira clearly lost himself in the intensity of the song, as he spit straight up into the air numerous times during the middle section, letting his own saliva wash over him like a dirty, cleansing benediction. Hahn was playing so hard and fast at one point that he would shake out his hand before each turbulent sonic burst, as the track evolved into a twisted, incendiary form of electric, Ornette Coleman-like free-jazz at one point, with each member dramatically riffing away.

Michael ushered in the final movement of "The Seer" with a mournful harmonica wail during the song's spacey denouement, before he put his entire mouth around the microphone and let loose a forlorn bellow like a lost soul in hell. The song gradually built back up again and finished in an energetic fury of noise, leaving the crowd almost too stunned to cheer as the sound finally died down.

Swans at Fine Line, 9/21/12
Swans at Fine Line, 9/21/12
Photos By Erik Hess

And truthfully, the set should have ended there, as the wistful and pained "Nathalie" sounded a bit tame and conventional by comparison. Gira warmly thanked the crowd one last time before announcing "We've got one last song for you," as the band eased into "The Apostate." Gira and Puleo both were shaking sets of sleigh bells at the start of the number, like they were announcing the arrival of some type of twisted, foreboding ghost of a Christmas that never was.

But sadly, the sweeping, unconventional number never fully caught fire, with Gira visibly annoyed with Pravdica as the song built to a close. The two vehemently argued about the pace and tone of the song, appearing to even suggest they switch roles if Gira didn't like how it sounded, and Michael ultimately was too distracted to invest much emotion in the lyrics as he cut the song short and brought the night to a fitful end.

Gira even apologized to the crowd as they took their well-earned bows, "Thank you very much, folks. Sorry about that last song. Thanks for having us." And while the set rightfully should have ended after "The Seer," there was really no reason for Gira to be apologetic, as he once again took his fans on an experimental, exploratory journey into what a song and sound can mean in the modern age, giving us no easy answers and plenty to think about in the process.

Critic's Notebook:

Personal Bias: After seeing Swans play at First Avenue last year, I vowed never to miss one of their performances ever again.

The Crowd: While I was surprised the show didn't sell-out, the place was full of plenty of longtime fans.

Overheard In The Crowd: Are you kidding me? I couldn't even hear myself think.

Random Notebook Dump: This was the first show I've ever covered where instead of timing how long the entire set lasted, I was timing each song individually, with three numbers clocking in at over 20 minutes in length.


To Be Kind




The Seer


The Apostate

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