We Saw This: Swans

By Adam Lehrer

I had originally bought my ticket to see Swans for a show on October 29, the night of Hurricane Sandy. I remember that night watching the storm progress waiting for the notice that the show would be canceled. 

By 6:30, the L train had already closed, but the show was to the best of my knowledge still on. At that point I figured I might as well walk across the Williamsburg Bridge and head to the venue. A Swans show against a city-devastating hurricane is kind of the perfect backdrop for the apocalyptic dirge the band has been known to conjure up. I remember I even had a corny lede prepared in my head that I was going to use in my review of the show.

Something like, “Not even the howling winds of Hurricane Sandy could deafen the ear-splitting noise of Swans on Monday night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.” 

At 7 PM I finally received the email that the show had been canceled. Though relieved to not have to risk my mortal life commuting to Brooklyn to see the show, I remember being a little bummed I wouldn’t get to see one of my favorite bands play amid such appropriately grim circumstances.

The show was rescheduled for February 7. After months of waiting, nothing was going to stop me from getting to see Swans. After a brutal and exhausting week of schoolwork, and hobbling around on a sprained knee, I loaded up on caffeine and Nicorette gum to gather the energy needed to witness the brutality of a Swans performance.

I have been listening to Swans for a long time. But last year’s The Seer received a lot of (much deserved) press and the band has certainly tapped into an entire new generation of listeners. The Pitchfork crowd was highly visible at the show, precisely the crowd that at one point or another would have lined up to see the show’s opener, Devendra Banhart.

I had no idea that anybody still listened to the dude, but this notion was quickly disproved while I was checking out my camera to make sure it was working properly and overheard three guys wearing Timberland boots and oversized sweatshirts.

“I hope Devendra plays with a full backing band,” said one.

“Me too, bro. Have either of you guys actually listened to Swans?”

“No, but I guess they must be good, the show is sold out,” said the last.

I was shocked.

Devendra came out and played a solo set, finger-picking at a Fender Jaguar. The most immediately shocking thing about the performance was Devendra’s appearance. The last time I saw the guy was in 2007 when I was still living in Tucson, Arizona. He looked like an acid-fried Manson family reject donning makeup and flowers in his hair. He reeked of pretension. I found him to be the most intolerable of all the artists associated with the freak-folk craze of the early aughts. 

Thursday night he came out with his hair shorter, and beard trimmed, wearing a cardigan and a button-down shirt. He looked like a conventional folk singer. It was refreshing to see the guy who once wrote cringe-worthy lyrics such as “Love is light ignited / Everyone is invited” has mellowed out a bit.

He played a quick six-song set. His guitar playing sounded nice, but his goat-falsetto voice was off-putting, per usual. I can’t hate too much because aside from the torturous singing, he seemed like a pretty cool guy. 

At one point he broke into Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time." An audience member said, “No, not again!”

Devendra laughed it off and responded, “I’m sorry man, is this something I do too much? Break into Cher songs?”

While his music fails to grab me, he’s a charismatic performer and displayed a good sense of humor. He clearly takes himself less seriously than he did at the height of his popularity, and it will be interesting to see where his career goes from here.

He ended his quick 30-minute set on a high note graciously thanking Michael Gira for giving him his career.

“Michael Gira changed my life,” he said. “He gave me the life that I had always wanted to live. Swans is one of my favorite bands and one of your favorite bands. Enjoy the show.”

One has to wonder, though, what the brilliant Gira saw in Banhart more than a decade ago. I heard some rumor that Gira was able to buy his house off Banhart’s releases on Gira’s Young God label... I’m sure that has something to do with their bond.

Another forty minutes went by, and my blood started to boil as the various members of Swans came out and checked their equipment.

Finally, the members appeared on stage at about 10:15 with Gira front and center, placing his lyrics sheet on a stand towards the center of the stage.

The band started with “To Be Kind," a song yet to be put to an actual record. It started with a long building of tension, with Gira flailing his arms directing his band of supremely talented musicians until the tension could be raised no more, and then BAM!

Drums started smashing, the feedback roaring, electronics screeching, and Gira using his uniquely savage sing-scream to lead the chaos into some semblance of organization. 

Swans create such a unique volume. They are as loud as any band I have ever heard, on par with other ear scorchers I have seen like Prurient or the inimitable Lightning Bolt, but they are still creating something undeniably musical. The sound in no way lacks in rhythm and melody and beats, but the music pulsates at such a deafening volume that it overloads the listener in the most visceral of ways. I recorded the majority of the show and after the first song ended I can hear myself yell, “My ears are already fucked!”

And they were. Last night I was barely able to sleep due to the nonstop ringing in my ears. Their volume is almost alarming. I remember actually pondering the possibility that I might rupture my eardrum and never hear again. I usually am offended when people wear earplugs to shows, but with Swans it is easier to empathize. 

The Seer was by far the Swans' most textured and musical album of their career. It is almost orchestral in the way the musicians feed off of each other, but live it is a completely different animal. 

They are able to recreate the music but give it the ear-splitting punch of their most early releases “Filth” and “Cop," and at times resemble the band that left an indelible influence on people like Justin Boadrick, who would go on to form Napalm Death, Godflesh, and Jesu. It is astounding how you can hear every individual instrument being played if you zone out and try to focus on that one sound, but then you drift off and you hear all those sounds coalesce into a cohesive and massive whole.

Even at their loudest, Swans still comes off as refreshingly bluesy. There is soulfulness to their music. During “She Loves Us," I found myself gyrating side to side in the most hideous contortions of white-man-dancing one could witness. I couldn’t help it. Their sound is physical. You can feel it. Any sort of anxiety or self-consciousness about how silly I must have looked evaporated as soon as I closed my eyes and let the music pulsate through my spine. They are the perfect band to see for someone in AA. I was 100 times more sober than I have been at any show in the last year, but I nevertheless felt more drugged than I had been even at my stoniest show attendances.

Swans embarrass younger bands with their performance. These guys are in their 40s and 50s, and for the duration of their show they do not stop playing or moving. You see bands today where the members are in their 20s and don’t even move away from their microphones. Gira was running from side to side, jumping up and down as he banged out riffs drenched in layers of feedback. His arm veins were bulging out of his shirt like a body builder doing curls. Drenched in sweat, the man was unstoppable. As he changed his lyric sheets he insisted his exhausted band members continue playing, and like soldiers obeying a general, they continued playing. 

Gira’s impressive showmanship has clearly rubbed off on his gifted bandmates. Phil Puleo, once a founding member of the New York noise-rock band Cop Shoot Cop, beats his drums like he has a grudge with them, but he never loses his sense of timing or rhythm. At one point during a thunderous rendition of “Coward," he beat his skins so hard he lost control of his sticks at which point he started punching them with his bare fist. It was pretty fucking cool. The appropriately named Thor Harris, while barely visible behind the massive stack of amplifiers, occasionally let his presence be known by standing and smashing every instrument that lay around him.

The show was already about and hour and a half in when they began the aural assault of “The Seer." The two parts of the song on the album last about 40 minutes all together. This performance went on for at least ten minutes longer than that. The song’s haunting form made up of loud bridges followed by louder bridges whipped the audience into an almost-orgasmic frenzy. An attractive woman next to me with an eyepatch was dancing in some Stevie Nicks sexy Wiccan gyration, while some dude behind me wearing an Afro decided to meditate. “The Seer” has a primal sexual energy that I find is too often dismissed when talking about the band, as it is clearly part of Swans’ appeal. The crowd, heavy on beautiful girls in their early 20s (who I assumed were all there for Devendra), laid testament to this notion. It is physical music. If you don’t feel it in one way or another, you may need to check your pulse because you are clearly fucking dead.

At one point I do remember thinking that the show was getting a little indulgent in its length, when there was a solid 15 minutes of the same crushing riff played in succession. There were several points when I thought the epic showcasing of “The Seer” had come to a close, at which point Gira would signal to his troops to go back to aurally torturing us. It was masochist and sadist, and so very much Swans.

Gira finally seemed to realize this was the case too. He signaled to the band to slowly bring the music down in volume little by little.

He said to the audience, “You guys look like you’re getting tired.”

I almost felt guilty agreeing with him considering I’m 25 years old and didn’t just play a marathon performance of arguably the best rock music we have now.

The band’s last show in New York for this tour, Gira introduced the six members of the band one by one, and they took a bow.

I walked back to the L train exhausted, sweaty, and limping from my sprained knee. But I could not lie to myself. I was smirking the entire way home. At the risk of coming off like a PR hack, I couldn’t deny that I was well aware that I had just witnessed to one of the best live performances of my life. 

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