I went back to Deep Ellum the night after YOB, but this time I was across the street at Trees to catch Swans. I was pleasantly surprised to see my new friend Kenny, whom I had met at the Agalloch show a few weeks back. He and his wife (whose name I forget, because my ability to retain names is legendarily horrible) and I chatted for a while before the show, and I would return to talk and hang with them throughout the night. It’s always a pleasure to have someone to share a show with, and I expect Kenny and I will see more shows together in the coming year.
Before the show, I made my way over to the merch table, figuring I’d buy a shirt or the live disc from the last tour. I was tempted by both, but I ended up buying only one thing, this stunning Brian Ewing print that was done for this particular show:
As the poster indicates, opening for Swans on this tour was Xiu Xiu, an artist I’ve never warmed to or even found particularly palatable. I appreciate that Jamie Stewart’s art is intense, personal, and incredibly heartfelt by his fans, so I approached it with open ears and an open mind. His set this night did not convert me, but I could appreciate his intensity. Though his one man band was never going to approach Swans in volume, the energy and fierceness of his performance was a good aesthetic fit with the headliners. It was almost uncomfortable to witness, a soul bearing flagellation through music.
[One quick aside: he used a single pole theremin for a screaming peal of sound on a couple of tracks. As a proudly incompetent thereminist I hate the faux theremin sound effect thing, whether from Xiu Xiu or Jimmy Page.]
Swans took the stage shortly after the Xiu Xiu set and from the opening notes the volume was visceral and painful. I was about 10-15 feet from the stage, and my loose jeans rippled around my ankles, my sternum felt like I was being slapped, and my guts began to churn. I’ve only been at two other shows that approached this level of physical assault; My Bloody Valentine in 1992, and A Tribe Called Quest in 1994 (the bass at that show was nearly bowel loosening, and was not helped by being in a concrete box of a venue). After the opening song, as Michael Gira berated the club for having televisions on during his set, I went back another 25-30 feet from the stage in the hopes of lessening the assault and not throwing up. This seemed to do the trick; they actually got louder, but my pants stopped rippling and my stomach stopped churning.
Swans present a rather static alignment on stage, with only Gira free to move from set positions. He did move a bit to engage with his fellow musicians, though it was more often to correct and express displeasure than to commune in any positive way at the shared experience of the music. But despite his occasional outbursts, the band was amazingly tight, almost a singular entity. It wasn’t a case of lockstep, machine-like precision, but a oneness of a common pulse, a shared heartbeat. This organic singularity, when combined with the modulating mantra-like quality of Gira’s lyrics, is what makes this current incarnation of Swans so powerful. The volume, the intake and outburst of the music, the monotone repetition of the vocals, and the length of the songs (they played I think 7 songs in 2 hours) all combined to bind the audience to the band in a way I’ve rarely experienced. It forced me out of myself and into the sound; the volume almost erases conscious thought (The Goslings’ Grandeur Of Hair is the only record to ever do this to me, and My Bloody Valentine the only live act), the living pulse connects to the body rhythms in a way that made me sway and move like a sea anemone in the ocean current, and the vocal repetition became prayer-like.
This came to the finest focus in the vocal glossolalia Gira employed in the song “Avatar”; he began with vocal play through rearrangement, with a line something like, “Her mind is in my mind” becoming “Her mouth is in my mind” then “Her mind is in my mouth” then “Her mouth is in my mouth” over a minute or so, each line repeated multiple times. After several verses of simple line repetition and variation, the play broke down to sound, a “ba ba bla bly blue bla blee bly bee bee ba bla bleeeeeeee” or somesuch as he waved in and out of the microphones pickup range. It hit me like a truck; a moment of zen enlightenment through nonsense koan. Swans had moved from concert to religious experience.
My reverie didn’t break until, during the performance of set closer “The Apostate” from new album The Seer, Gira became visibly and vocally upset at drummer Phil Puleo, who apparently was not varying the beat to his satisfaction. I say that was the issue because Gira would, at the end of a verse, step back toward’s Puleo, facing him and waving his arms in imitation of a crazy drum fill, smashing air snares and cymbals with reckless, haphazard abandon. Phil Puleo would then play a series of anarchic fills, before returning to what was already a hectic baseline drum pattern. This in turn would cause Gira to turn back to him, get even closer to his kit, and manically play his air drums yet again. Puleo would dutifully nod his ascent, play a series of crazy fills for 30 seconds or so, then exhaustedly drop back to the baseline. Eventually, this was too much for the bandleader who stepped away from the mic in obvious disgust, waving his arms back and forth at waist height, the universal sign for cut/stop/end. The band began to wind down, slowing gradually to a stop over the next minute or two, while Gira continued waving his arms and yelling at Puleo off mic. As they stopped he said, “That’s it. You can meet us over there,” motioning to the merch table. It was a bit of a sour note to end on, and though it couldn’t dampen my experience of the preceding two hours, it did stop me from bringing my poster over to get signed.
Would I go again? Absolutely. My hearing should have recovered by the time the come back through in a year or two.