Since their 2010 reboot, Swans have quickly become one of the most absorbing live acts touring today. And so it came to pass on March 22, not even a month since they last played in Brooklyn, that a near-capacity, generation-spanning crowd assembled in the Music Hall of Williamsburg with ears plugged and braced for what would prove to be something of a religious rite.
Little Annie, who lent her smoky vocals to “Some Things We Do” on Swans’ latest, To Be Kind, opened with a set of vivid songs. Her rendition of “Private Dancer” seemed to tell tales of a life thoroughly lived, and her recent book underscores that point. “I’m feeling a little shy and discombobulated,” the utterly engaging Annie confessed before whipping off her leopard-print scarf to a whoop from the crowd. Sadly, she didn’t reappear to do “Some Things We Do” with Swans.
Nowadays, you go to a Swans show with, at the very least, an awareness of the band’s almost mythical reputation for being extremely loud. My two cents: Yes, they are loud — earth-shakingly, bone-rattlingly loud, occasionally to the point of physical pain — but you get used to it after a bit. Maybe my hearing’s just ruined after too many loud shows, but I couldn’t help but feel that the legend of Swans’ volume has been a wee bit exaggerated in its many retellings.
That said, to focus only on the volume of a Swans show, or, worse, to simply call them a “noise” band, is to miss the point of a live show that seeks to take its audience on an odyssey that hypnotizes as much as it hurts. This is a point that is made early, by the set’s slow and deliberate overture. Beginning with several minutes of rising and swelling waves of percussion from Thor Harris, the din continued to build as each member stepped out, adding texture to a gradually unfolding cacophony and a thickening air until the full band assembled on stage, a now-gathered storm that suddenly reined the noise in just short of an earth-splitting crescendo. At the moment the tension gave way, most of the front row turned to look at each other, laughing and shaking at their ears.
Michael Gira seemed to have a cough as he sang the lyrics to the first song, which appeared to be a new one called “Frankie M,” but he was soon roaring, shrieking, apparently possessed, glossolalia, conducting his band with hand gestures, and every now and again breaking out into high kicks. Thor, who lost his shirt, appeared to have an endless collection of intriguing percussive instruments to draw from. Phil Puelo was obscured behind his drum kit, Norman Westberg stood almost stock-still while his guitar shrieked, and Christoph Hahn worked his inconceivable magic on his lap steel, rubbing his fingers in pain as the night progressed. Christopher Pravdica looked possessed, though he may have been fighting back tears from hitting his bass strings so relentlessly.
Contrary to his formidable reputation, Gira gave out a handful of occasional smiles, and even appeared pre–sound check with a grin and a wave for anyone who caught his eye. There were flashes of the cantankerous, though, like when he made frantic gestures to draw attention to the lack of volume on his vocals, or when he ordered the lighting staff to kill the strobe: “None of that psychedelic stuff.”
Perhaps it was that itchy throat. “I’ve got 61 years of anguish in there,” he explained. “Sorry I’m not so mellifluous as usual.”
It was, indeed, very loud, but for a few moments thoughts could be heard above the apocalyptic din, and it became apparent that the volume has a purpose beyond spectacle. You can’t really think when this noise is enveloping you; it forces you into just being there in the moment, inside the unrelenting racket, and reaching toward a revelation. There’s almost a cleansing quality to it. Freed of self-consciousness, it seems almost like redemption.
This journey that Swans take you on has an almost shamanic quality. You emerge from it feeling completely fucked, yes, but also, in some strange way, healed. It almost makes you wonder why music doesn’t always feel like this.
After ordering the house lights up and introducing the band, who all take theatrical bows, Gira revealed that Swans will begin recording a new album soon and that we won’t be seeing them play live for a while — probably until the middle of next year. “We’ll see you then,” he said. They may be a reformed band, but Swans are riding an incredible wave of creativity, and they’re not getting off it yet.