Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Swans @ Music Hall of Williamsburg, 05.19.2014

As is so often the case these days, bands I never thought I'd get a chance to see are experiencing a second career with new audiences. Swans are one such band, and since my trip to NY coincided with hometown shows in support of their new album To Be Kind, my presence was all but certain before I even set foot in the country.

I'd seen Swans once before when the band reunited for shows at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, an appropriate venue for a band that inspires such religious fervour. What was memorable about the experience was that the guitars were so loud that they made my skin vibrate as I stood at the front of the stage; and a woman yelling incoherently throughout the set proved that "drunken douchebag" need not be gender specific.

Opener Jenny Hval's place on the bill was baffling to some; when asked about the demure Norwegian, the dude next to me chimed in: "I liked the songs I heard on the radio, but not when I saw them on The Youtube." [Yes, he actually called it "The Youtube". And, from now on so will I.] The majority of her music (and indeed, Jenny herself) seemed too twee to open for the band that wrote "Time is Money, Bastard"; but during the song "Blood Flight", with its percussive guitar and Jarbo-esque speak-singing, you get an inkling as to why she was chosen to open for Swans. But like when I saw Wolf Eyes a few days prior, I couldn't shake the feeling that what we were seeing was more akin to karaoke than an actual live performance, and that the rest of the band could have easily been replaced by DAT.
For all their minimalism and repetition, the members of Swans could not be replaced by DAT; even if the band were early adoptees of incorporating tape loops into their live performances, the chaos they generate is all too human. Bandleader Michael Gira acts not just as frontman but ringmaster and conductor (an image made all the more poignant as he reads his lyrics off of, I kid you not, a sheet music holder). The rest of the band watched him intently for cues as to when to build the music up, take it down, and pull the plug. The man himself is a whirling dervish when it suits him, dancing in circles as the music builds to oppressive levels. [He's also warmer than his reputation suggests, saying hello to my friend Phil and I as he passed us in the upstairs lounge, cowboy hat and all.]

The band that inspired everyone from Napalm Death to Neurosis seem to have no use for conventional ideas of "heavy": Guitars blanket the audience while serpentine bass lines drive the music. Swans probably aren't a band with a frequently updated "riff library" - you get the sense that all their guitar strings could be tuned to the same note and it wouldn't make much of a difference. And yet, it works, with no one instrument being more important than the other. Percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Thor got singled out for praise by audience members - seemingly for no other reason than the fact that it's fun to yell "Thor" at the top of your lungs.
Before the band takes its final bow, there is drama to be had, with bassist Christopher Pravdica making a point of kicking his rig. "I'm sorry, I guess we blew another bass amp," Gira said by way of explanation. "We just blew one last night." Apologies? For what? The bass turning into an indistinct and menacing rumble only made Swans sound more like old Swans, ensuring that this new generation of fans got their money's worth, tinnitus and all.