Swans are loud and proud of it. Last Friday at Venue Nightclub I finally had the opportunity to personally test the highly reputed transcendent aspect of their live shows and to verify accounts of their legendary (if mythical) vomit-inducing volume.
Stormy chimes and gong emanated from one of the back corners of the stage. A pile of amps barricaded multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris; only the crown of his head was visible to the audience on the floor. It was from this encampment that he gradually unleashed his arsenal which included a trombone, clarinet, and mallet (with which he clobbered the chimes).
One by one, the rest of the band appeared onstage and joined Harris’s ominous percussive gale. Last in this procession, following drummer Phil Puleo, bassist Christopher Pravdica, lap steel-player Christoph Hahn, and guitarist Norman Westberg, was lead singer and guitarist Michael Gira.
Even in a neutral state, Gira is an intimidating figure. His severity almost became palpable when he fidgeted with his mic stand before he played a note or uttered a syllable. Given his known temperament, this struggle seemed to have lasted an eternity. His grimace only tightened when he successfully adjusted the stand and took to his guitar, but the house-speakers began crackling. I comforted myself with the illusions that the sky had cracked open and awaited my ascension, or Swans had descended upon me to bestow deliverance – or cast me down to Hell.
“Frankie M” slowly reared its hanging head from the gallows. “Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)” rang unholy. “Oxygen” sent people reeling with its clay-thick bass notes, blasts of guitar, and some of Gira’s most visceral vocal-work. The lopsided “A Little God in My Hands” limped along as those same guitars blared, signalling the Apocalypse. Swans stretched these and just a few more songs into upwards-of-20-minute epics. They played a two-hour set without breaks which made the show more grueling for everyone involved. Fans and (presumably) the band alike sweltered as the venue turned into a sweat lodge. No encore was required. Or given.
Swans are in-the-moment body-music: it splits your bones and seeps into your marrow. Gira has been known to pluck people’s phones out of their hands and place the gadgets in non-threatening spots onstage (on top of amps, for instance). But the most he had to intervene on Friday was shake his head and mouth “no” with a disapproving scowl as he shooed away a photographer, whose light diffuser stuck above the crowd’s heads like an antenna to Heaven.
As Swans escalated towards thunderous climaxes and full, satisfying resolutions, Gira became possessed: he flung his arms left and right, up and down, and every angle between. He yowled at the top of his lungs and bellowed from the pit of his being. He was maniacal, consumed by immolated despair. At no point did his spasms feel affected. His transformation before our eyes was organic and ultimately engrossing.
Even at 60-years-old, Michael Gira outperformed most musicians half his age whom I’ve seen. My stomach contents remained in their right place, although largely from my own doing: having felt my body shake, from the innards of my foam-jammed ears to my toes in my boots, I didn’t dare remove my earplugs. And while I didn’t see anyone projectile vomit, perhaps it’s sometimes more satisfying to let yourself believe in myths, not that I’ll need any reasons other than Swans’ pulverizing, sublime performance to see them again.