Monday, September 26, 2011

Show review: Swans at Bottom Lounge, 9/22

By Gene Wagendorf III

Swans jam on "No Worlds/No Thoughts"

I have seen the path to world peace, and it runs through Swans.

A dull, anxious drone pummeled the audience from an empty stage for a full 10 minutes (years?), at first creating intrigue, then irritation and, ultimately, an embracing of absurdity. Eventually Thor Harris appeared on-stage to hammer on some chimes, signaling the start of "No Worlds/No Thoughts" from Swans' 2010 release My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. One by one the rest of his bandmates joined in on the assault, adding more feedback and distortion to a swirl that evoked uncomfortable memories of the last time I got drunk and tried to listen to all of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. The audience looked to be developing a large-scale case of Stockholm Syndrome, egging on the group who seemed to be punishing them for crimes unstated. When the band finally came together on the song's first identifiable riff they were greeted by an even more deafening round of cheers.

The extended jam was part broken music box, part dissolving doomsday locomotive and pushed to its limits by Chris Pravdica's earthquake bass. Legendary front-man Michael Gira was as intimidating and confrontational as his reputation would suggest, only taking breaks from his manic conducting to spit at the audience or steal a swig of beer. The noise behind him faded to nothing but a series of twinkles while he repeated "to think is a sin" in mantra-like fashion. A moment of silence at the lines completion proved to be only an opportunity to inhale before another two minutes of full audio attack.

Swans front-man Micheal Gira
"Jim" was also a slow build, anchored by a rolling bass line and stuttered drumming. As the song took off Harris wailed on a vibraphone, creating rapid, ambrosial melodies that swam out over what sounded like a lumbering beast leveling a city. On multiple occasions I've had Swans described to me as a machine, but that metaphor is completely inaccurate. Their delivery is far more organic, creating sounds that draw their inspiration from the primal and the profane. One of the two new songs played at the show provided the band's most solid groove, one that called back to early Suicide recordings (though with much more muscle). Lyrically the song fit perfectly with the religious slant of the My Father Will Guide Me... material; Gira at one point crumbling to the floor while yipping "get out of my church."

Aside from Gira's vocals, which were both barbed and mesmerizing, the most affecting moments came when the blizzard eased off until one instrument was isolated. Each player had a spotlight moment, the most impressive being a section Phil Puelo's tribal drum smashing that blew up into another full-band cyborg butterfly orgasm. The set concluded with the haunting stagger of "Eden Prison," whose melodic intro gave way to chugging guitars intent on trampling the crowd's battered eardrums. I've never been to a show as loud as Swans, and the frenzied eruption halfway through "Eden" is probably responsible for my hearing not fully returning until around 3 p.m. the next day.

Gira on "Eden Prison"
Watching Swans maneuver through the end of their set and eventually an encore of "Little Mouth," I couldn't help but feel completely inspired. Despite all Gira's thrashing and convulsing and the band's musical brutality and abrasiveness, they may be the most positive band I've ever seen. There's the journey, yes, the satisfaction of sweet exhaustion, but that's not it. After each piece, the band was met with extended applause, "thank yous" and whistles. Several times Gira let a smile break across his stern face, genuinely touched by the incredible reception his band was receiving. Swans acted as a kind filter, absorbing all the negativity surrounding them and channeling it into music, leaving nothing but bliss in their wake. Opener Sir Richard Bishop joked before he left that stage that Swans would strip the flesh from the audience's bones. I ended the night with my epidermis intact, but also without a fucking care in the world. The only thing stripped away was any regard for anything not Swans.

That's peace.


Check out more show reviews:
Freelance Whales at Empty Bottle
Mayor Daley, Bad Drugs at Empty Bottle
Braids at the Empty Bottle
Peter Bjorn & John at Empty Bottle
Paper Mice at Treasure Town

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