Better Than: Standing in front of a sputtering jet engine.
On Friday night at Warsaw (261 Driggs Avenue) in Greenpoint, Swans performed to a sold-out crowd of masochists, who seemed to welcome the punishing drone as though it were candy. Many in the crowd wisely wore earplugs. The sheer volume of Swans easily overpowered anyone who was silly enough to forget their pair at home. Speaking in purely referential terms, only My Bloody Valentine is louder. But while My Bloody Valentine’s legendary 20-minute dissonant noise-pummeling takes place in the middle of “You Made Me Realise,” Swans maintained that level of intensity for their two-hour set, giving in only occasionally for Michael Gira to scat-sing or for the band to transition between songs.
Opening for Swans was the Brooklyn-based black-metal quartet Liturgy. Having recently reunited again as a four-piece band, their sound was crisp and cohesive. Notably absent from Liturgy’s performance was Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s high-pitched screaming; instead the vocals resembled Gregorian chants, perhaps if Kurt Cobain took up the cassock. Though the abrupt change in vocal style was hinted at on the recorded version of “Glass Earth“, there was a conspicuous sense of confusion among the crowd for a moment when Hunt-Hendrix first laid into the microphone with a jarringly gentler vox. This begs the question: Can Liturgy still be considered black without the traditional shrieking vocal style? Not that it necessarily matters, because traditions can and should change, and with music especially, mutations of genres are pathways to producing something new. The instrumental songs, like “Generation,” sounded no different, save for the realization that the sort of spastic, breakneck drumming that comes from Greg Fox is inhuman. When performed live, one gets a truer sense of just how complicated Liturgy’s music can become.
The similarities between Swans and Liturgy are grounded in their searches for spiritual ekstasis, but their approaches are vastly different. Whereas Liturgy attempt to find a Heaven-like delirium through the anxious tremolo of black metal, Swans utilize a range of sweet orchestral instruments like tubular bells and a trombone (both performed by famed auxiliary percussionist Thor Harris) to create nightmarish hellscapes. Their performance began with angry ambient waves from lap steel player Christoph Hahn that grew and faded for several tense minutes before the rest of the band filtered out onto the stage.
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Michael Gira’s only true contemporary in terms of age and performance could be Peter Murphy. Both are gentlemen of a certain age who once rocked and still presently rock infinitely harder than bands half their age. On stage, Gira certainly plays up his legendarily stoic demeanor, punctuated unceremoniously with high kicks and stage leaps, and the self-face-slapping that took place during the fifth song. Occasionally he ad-libbed his way through songs — not with improvised lyrics, but with full-on Pentecostal glossolalia. But his voice really shone when he utilized his baritone to scream-shout lyrics like “shitting blood!” or when he subtly sang the last few words of “The Cloud of the Unknown,” a new song.
With Swans, you always feel as though you are in a canoe careening toward a waterfall; you know the waterfall is coming, you can plainly see it ahead of you, and feel the whitewater scuttling past your boat at increasing speed, but that fall never happens. The brutalism is in the journey, of never letting you reach your final destination, forcing you to dissolve in a moment, devoid of melodies as guardrails. Most of their songs were performed with one repeated note from the guitars and bass, but that one note is played so deliberately, that with volume and time its articulation becomes punishing rather than simply throbbing.
Occasionally the music was punctuated with Gira’s arm-waving, resembling a maleficus over a cauldron. To an extent, that could be an apt metaphor for how he runs his show: He is clearly in charge, utilizing barely perceptible hand movements to direct the other members of his band through crescendos and musical phrase changes, which seemed to happen without warning. One moment, you’ve been stuck in their droning molasses for six minutes, the next, a funk beat from To Be Kind kicks in as though a light switch was flicked. But the sustained noise never let up the intensity. There was always more ear-shattering volume, more feedback. At times it became too much to handle. When asked what his most intense live experience was, Gira simply replied “when it was completely silent,” from a show that took place about three months ago. He mused that with regard to silence, “that’s sort of the ultimate goal.”
Overheard: “Let’s get out of here, I just can’t anymore,” said a girl to her boyfriend, when drummer Phil Puleo blew a piercing fire whistle through a mic. They stayed, and bravely powered through the set without earplugs. “WOOO!” a guy behind me went when Thor Harris took his shirt off.
Random Notebook Dump: Hell Hymns. These are literal Hell Hymns. I am in the lake of fire, and Michael Gira is my gospel singer. Is this Christian Hell? Is this LaVeyan Hell? Do I care?
Critical Bias: I got really into Swans only when My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky came out because I saw cool people on the internet listening to it and I wanted to be cool. I still want to be cool.