Swans at First Avenue, 09/20/11
September 20, 2011
New York No Wave luminaries Swans provided an ominous soundtrack to either the end of the world or the beginning of a new one at First Avenue on Tuesday night. Their thunderous, two hour-twenty minute set both rewarded and punished their longtime fans with a scathing, volatile wall of sound and noise that tested the boundaries of both what a song can truly be and whether the listener's ears can even take it. It was a sinister study in tension and release at the highest possible volume, a controlled volatility that proved to be utterly captivating and entirely all-consuming.
The show began tranquil enough, with chimes tolling amid a roiling bass line. The rest of the band joined in one by one, each adding their own menacing musical flourishes before frontman Michael Gira came out and all hell broke loose. Gira was the malevolent conductor of this insistent, stentorian orchestra, turning the somewhat serene start into the howling wail of a hundred banshees, which continued on relentlessly for a full half-hour. It was a stupefying start, which eventually morphed into technically the first song of the evening, "No Words/No Thoughts," with Michael pounding his foot and his guitar in time with the deafening dual rhythm generated by Phil Puleo and Shearwater's Thor Harris.
Gira was also joined by original Swans guitarist Norman Westberg, longtime member Christoph Hahn on guitar, and Chris Pravdica on bass, all composing a doom-laden drone that was impossible to escape from. After the din of the first number died down, Gira jokingly addressed the predominantly male audience, "Thank you, girls, thank you." And with that, the band was off on the pummeling sonic pandemonium that is "Jim," which proved to be one of the standouts of the set. Gira again teased the audience, saying "What a beautiful bunch of women you are. Couldn't you have at least brought some boys along?" This bit of between-song levity was quite a welcome respite, because it was nice to not have him screaming at us ALL night.
Seven of the eight songs played during the set were drawn from either last year's fantastic LP, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, or a forthcoming Swans record slated for release sometime next year (hopefully). And while that might upset their hardcore fans who were hoping to hear more of their early work, that really isn't the trip Gira is on now. He is onto something totally new and dynamic, a sound that only he truly knows where it's going or where it will end up, but he's generously inviting his audience along to find out where he's at now. New song "The Apostate" found Gira's shirt totally open as he was lost in the moment, with him looking disheveled like a No-Wave Bukowski, leading us into the grime and decay of this ferocious number as he slapped himself silly while singing away.
Another new track, "The Seer," featured a simmering, slow-buring start before the propulsive number erupts into a flurry of noise and feedback. The only old track played on the night was an intense, blistering version of "I Crawled," which absolutely slayed the audience. Gira was tearing at his mouth while singing, as if the space he needed to share these weighty words wasn't big enough for them to escape. It was a captivating moment, and provided vivid proof why this seminal band captured everyone's attention in the first place.
It wasn't all brilliance, mind you (there were some droning moments and indulgences that went on a bit too long), but even the missteps eventually built to a sonic splendor, as if the band had to find their way through the dissonance in order to get to the discord they were after. Before introducing the band, Gira took one last opportunity to chide the audience, "It's nice to see so many indie-rockers here tonight. Pitchfork reading indie-rockers." That was met with a lot of "fuck you's" by the crowd, who were all plenty old enough to remember when the term tastemaker didn't exist.
"We have two more songs. I hope that isn't too much for you," Gira announced before the long intro to the new track "Avatar." And while some of the curious, casual fans had left by this point (nearly two-hours in), everyone else was rooted to the floor, stunned by the sounds they were hearing. "Avatar" featured more threatening chimes, echoing the explosive start of the show. The track had a slow, forbidding build-up, before the band unleashed a blistering sonic eruption at the end. The main set drew to a menacing end with the highly-charged "Eden Prison," which echoed the dark work and gripping storytelling of Nick Cave.
It was such a superb rendition that I felt the band should skip the encore, but when Gira came out in his trusty cowboy hat I knew we all needed to hear more. And while Gira skipped the whole first verse of "Little Mouth," in favor of a lengthy, volatile intro, he brought the song to a dramatic close with his haunting vocals. Gira left us with these words of gratitude, "Thank you so much, children. We worship at your feet." And indeed there was something truly spiritual and otherworldly about this performance, but it was quite a bit more menacing than the sacred services I'm familiar with.
Critic's Bias: I hadn't seen Swans since the '90s, but I hadn't forgotten about them either.
The Crowd: Full of diehard fans that were thrilled to be seeing Swans again, mixed in with those just curious to hear what this hellfire was emanating from First Ave.
Overheard In The Crowd: "Louder. Faster. Take off your shirt." It was the only thing I heard from the crowd during this deafening show.
Random Notebook Dump: I thought it was very poignant that, other than the instruments, the only adornment anywhere on the stage was a lone music stand for Gira, the mad conductor of this musical mayhem.
For More Photos: See our full slideshow by Kathy Easthagen.
No Words/No Thoughts
Little Mouth (Encore)
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