Imagine being trapped inside a tiny unit at a self-storage building that is on fire. You are trapped inside this 5×8 corrugated metal coffin and it is filling with smoke. Imagine yourself panicking, pounding on the walls, walls that keep getting hotter and hotter. You are roasting. Your sweat stings your eyes and soaks through your clothes. Now hear your own cries for help bouncing off of the burning walls, listen as the echoes turn into screams. Welcome to the existential terror that is seeing SWANS in concert.
Michael Gira, the spiritual leader of the group, has pulled together a new aural torture squad under the SWANS moniker after nearly 13 years of inactivity. SWANS are legends of the New York, post-No Wave, noise-rock scene. Gira used the group to explore a broad range of psychological torment music during their original run from ’82 to ’97. Rumors had been circulating the web for about a year that Gira was putting together a new SWANS line-up and album. By the Spring, we had confirmation in the form of some demo recordings appearing on his various websites. Last month SWANS released a very strong new album entitled “My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky”. On Wednesday night, at the Black Cat, Michael Gira and his SWANS performed their second concert of the 2010 reactivation tour. It was an experiment in terror that the crowd of devout fans and the sonically curious happily subjected themselves too.
I knew I was in for something different when I reached the top of the stairs at the Black Cat. The double doors had signs hanging on them that informed “At the request of the artist the air conditioner upstairs has been turned off.” I knew that SWANS were infamous for making shows so confrontational and uncomfortable that they had been known to drive people out of the venues before they were even finished. These signs were my first indication of Gira’s reach touching the audience before his band even took the stage.
Inside the Black Cat, there was a long line of people waiting to purchase SWANS merchandise. I scanned the merch table and Gira had brought an entire catalog of SWANS special editions and collections. Each had in-depth sonic descriptions printed out next to them. As I read each note describing the hardest, most abrasive, noise-love ever recorded my anticipation for the show ahead loomed large. I am a huge fan of intense, challenging music and over the years, tales of SWANS concerts have taken on near-mythic proportions. Based on these stories I have collected over the years and the strength of “My Father…” I was fairly confident that this concert was going to be a special one.
But I also had some element of doubt. SWANS later material delved into spooky acoustics and dark “Americana” that I personally would not expect to enjoy in concert. With DC’s date being just the second of the tour, there was little information about what material Gira would be mining here. SWANS catalog is so large that he could be playing any number of styles. These worries were erased and my positive suspicions were confirmed during SWANS opening number.
A droning loop of noise over an empty stage. Out steps a dead-ringer for Marvel Comic’s “The Mighty Thor” who begins to bang on tubular bells. The drone continues while the bells emit a gothic jangle. Then the rest of the band file onto the stage. Gira and three other older-looking bad-asses take position with their guitars (including a horizontal steel guitar) and bass. The drummer sets up behind his kit. Soon each SWAN is using their instrument to either harmonize and amplify the drone or play against it in dissonance. This intro grinds along, getting louder and louder as it goes.
Ridiculous volume is a part of every SWANS tale I have every heard and the opening salvo of Wednesday’s show quickly reached ear-hazard levels. My Bloody Valentine end every show with an extended noise jam that rips out from the guts of their song ‘You Made Me Realize’; this is the loudest thing I have ever heard in my life and it comes almost as a noise therapy after a full set of MBV’s beautifully loud music. Here SWANS were opening their show in a similar sonic fashion but it had an entirely different effect. Their noise was oppressive, and rather than having MBV’s oddly soothing effect, it only served to assault you. By the end of their first song, you are either on board with SWANS or you are going to have a very long night. Personally I was able to find the groove within their throbbing noise and by the end of the first song I was loving it.
Any SWANS fans that had similar concerns about what material was being covered on this tour, fear not. Gira mined some choice tracks from SWANS most nihilistic period. SWANS performed amped up versions of just about the entire new album which melded perfectly with the back catalog selections. There were several extended intros tacked onto songs and some noise transition pieces that completely blew my mind. Immediately after one of these transitory jams I completely lost my cool and sent a text to my friend who skipped the show “OMFG SWAAAAANS. Soooo powerful. I am afraid. They make post-metal finales look like girl scouts.” Which is true. Their mid-show guitar battle was so loud, dense, and abrasive that it was like listening to Justin K. Broadkick on PCP repeatedly punching through a cop car windshield while being hit in the back with shotgun blasts.
Michael Gira is one fucked up guy. His stage presence is akin to Hannibal Lecter roaming around his cell. Gira appeared calm for large portions of the show, singing and playing his guitar normally. He occasionally waved his hands along with the music. Sometime directing the band, others just because he was really getting into it. But beneath that calm exterior, it was obvious that a devious mind was at work, constantly calculating when and how to escape to bite a guard’s or in this case the audience’s face off. Gira channeled some deep demons during this set; it is not everyday you see a singer repeatedly smacking himself in the face. His vocal performance really soared on the older songs. Especially on ‘Sex God Sex’ and ‘I Crawled’. The performance of the latter was Gira at his most disturbing; hugging his guitar close to his chest, face twisting in agony with each word, as he screamed on and on and on about weakness and begged to be choked.
Wednesday night’s show was a flawlessly performed combat tour. The band inflicted heavy losses on the audience; the Black Cat was nearly sold out, but by set’s end nearly a third of the crowd had retreated to safety. For those of us who stayed, the die hards and the insane, the concert could not have been better. It was actually quite amazing how well the new material worked seamlessly next to some of Gira’s finest original works. This is a testament to the excellent song-writing that exists beneath all of the noise. Even with SWANS monolithic sounds hammering my ear drums for the entire show, I walked away from the set with a renewed or perhaps newly found perspective on Michael Gira as an artist. One has to see SWANS live to fully understand; from making the room uncomfortably hot, to assaulting the audience with noise, all the way down to his fractured psyche vocals delivering his masochistic doom poetry; Michael Gira is a demented genius.