Michael Gira of Swans bellows forth sonic negativity (All photos by Daniel Ahrendt)
A few moments after staking out my place at the front of the stage, I wandered over to the merch table. While I was checking out the various Swans t-shirts featuring the covers of some of their first albums, the woman working there cast an amused look to someone standing to my left. Maybe I should have been more surprised to turn that direction and find Michael Gira in a cowboy hat, cat-grinning over a bottle of open water back at her. What did surprise me was the transformation of this soft and mild public persona into a human cannonball when Swans took the stage.
Michael Gira (left) and Norman Westberg (right)
For as much as we’ve all heard or seen of Swans depending on your age, it’s hard to imagine anyone being prepared for the experience. To rehash their historical infamy, the band formed in 1982 in New York City led by Gira (pronounced Jee-Rah). Along with other fairly constant members guitar player Norman Westberg and keyboardist/singer Jarboe, the band rotated through a lot of other members from their inception up to their break-up in 1997. Swans are renowned for being one of the few groups to survive and thrive from the short-lived No Wave scene in New York that mirrored the rise of punk in the same city. Other members of the short list include Sonic Youth, composer Glenn Branca, and No Wave freak queen Lydia Lunch, although her survival of the short lived-culture is definitely debatable.
Christoph Hahn (left) and Phil Puleo (right)
Within the historical context of the band, this “reunion” is probably one of the more legitimate ones of the past decade. After all, the project was and still is Gira’s enterprise, Westberg is still playing guitar, and the fact that the other four members on stage were new or relatively new is just par for the course. Swans were known in the ’80s and ’90s for their spiked wall of sound approach, and they still are. This was the second loudest show I’ve ever been to, beaten only by the absurd noise wash that is The Melvins and Jello Biafra’s aged yelping in a venue with a much bigger sound system.
On top of the monstrous bass volume were successive layers of percussion, pile-driving guitar, and Christoph Hahn‘s atonal/droning lap steel. They opened with “No Words/No Thoughts”, the first track from the 2010 album My Father Will Lead Me Up A Rope To The Sky, stretching an eight minute sledgehammer into a twenty-five minute tool of the same type. Instead of spreading existing elements thin, visualize if you will increasing the size of an image in photoshop without losing any definition. You just end up with a larger sledge that falls slower and with ten times the destructive force when it cracks open your skull. The rest of the set included older…hits…such as “Sex, God, Sex” and “I Crawled” performed with a degree of patient intensity you’ll find in no other live act. The collective effect of bass thrumming through your swaying body for two straight hours as sound is sculpted in dramatic peaks creates a trance that, dare I say, puts Godspeed You! Black Emperor to shame. I am truly apologetic for not being able to bring you any video. Just getting Gira screaming “PRAISE GOD! PRAISE THE LORD!” during “Sex, God, Sex” would have sufficed. Oh, and the violent crotch groping Gira gave himself around mid-set. That was great.
James Toth (left) and William Tyler (right) of Wooden Wand
Now, about Wooden Wand. Having little experience with James Toth‘s records, I can’t tell you what the Young God Records darling sounds like off stage. On the Neumos stage, he was boring. I could hardly make out his lyrical content and while what I did hear seemed promising, his nasal folk crooning was completely overshadowed by the excellent guitar playing of William Tyler. Utilizing a set of long, well manicured picking nails, a tremolo barred telecaster, a volume pedal, and a few other effects, this man combined the ethereal tones of alt-country guitar and lap steel expressiveness effortlessly.
Below are some videos of Swans that are faithful to Saturday’s show. Enjoy them and seek them out live the next chance you get. You’ll never feel more emotionally and physically exhausted from largely standing in one place for two hours.
UPDATE 3/2/11: I’ve been informed that the guitarist’s name is William Tyler, not William Taylor. Thank you graygo. I can attribute that miscommunication to the same reason I described Wooden Wand’s set as “boring”; I couldn’t hear James Toth very well due to the mix. Not being able to hear a songwriter’s lyrics when he sings them could easily contribute to audience lack of interest during a specific live show. I should have made that more apparent when this review was posted.
Half way into “No Word/No Thoughts”
New song, “Avatar”