Live Review: Swans at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg | Consequence of Sound

Music is by definition a physical thing. Of course it is — vibrations and sound waves and the like.

That fact will rarely strike you as viscerally as it does at a Swans show. When I last saw the band, at 2013′s Northside Festival, I stood in the photo pit and marveled as I felt the pummeling guitars in my gut, the wind from the amps in my hair. Behind me, veteran fans wielded noise-canceling headphones for comfort. I had none, and had to retreat from the din after an hour or so of the set.

This time, a press pass mix-up somewhat mercifully kept me from arriving in time to stand so close. Off to the side, I spent much of the band’s characteristically brutal performance at Music Hall of Williamsburg watching the 60-year-old frontman, noting how his entire body becomes implicated in the sculpting of his increasingly enormous noise compositions. During the climaxes — you know, the pounding, apocalyptic tremors that any 15-minute-or-longer Swans track promises — he would step towards the mic and then lurch back, as if recoiling from the frightful impact of his own yelps. (“G-g-g-get back!” he barked on “The Apostate”, with an echo effect coating his voice.) Sometimes he danced, a flailing, deranged gyration that’s half Thom Yorke motions and half shaking-off-a-jacket-that’s-been-lit-on-fire. Other times, as on a psychedelic, mightily slowed version of “Oxygen”, he simply babbled, mantra-like refrains giving way to gibberish and wordless sound. Behind him, a shirtless Thor Harris waged war against his tubular bells and electric vibraphone; to his right, Christoph Hahn studied his lap steel with silent, stationary intensity.

This is Swans in 2014, a band that seems to grow better and scarier as its 15-year original run fades into an increasingly distant memory. These days, the group plays shows the way they write albums: the songs are few, but they are lengthy, stretching well past the 10-minute mark and encompassing a range of instrumental passages — ambient siren-like feedback, tension, release, a restrained vocal part, a yowling vocal tantrum, and one of those crushing denouements. Gira told Consequence of Sound this month that the new LP, To Be Kind, is “more streamlined” and less ambient than 2012′s The Seer. That’s true. From it, the group played “Oxygen”, “A Little God in My Hands”, and “Bring the Sun”, and I was struck with the songs’ precise, unrelenting grooves, a quality that’s as indebted to krautrock as it is noise music. “A Little God” sounded outright funky, or as funky as a Swans song can sound before hurtling into terribly unfunky sonic distillations of despair.

Given the cynicism that swirls around any “reunion” act, it seems remarkable that the group’s setlist has been almost entirely transformed since less than a year ago. I don’t think the band played any song that dates from before 2010 (audience requests for “Coward” notwithstanding), but there were two new ones that haven’t yet appeared on record. Set opener “Frankie M” was the best of them, with a particularly melancholy vocal refrain and lyrics that seemed to reference heroin addiction.

Then there is the band’s formidable chemistry. Gira has developed a reputation for outwardly exhibiting frustration towards his bandmates when they err, a sight that’s as terrifying as it is lightly humanizing. Swans only began rehearsing for this tour cycle several weeks ago — 10 hours a day, every day — so those hiccups are inevitable as the band begins the tremendous undertaking of working out the material of its next record, which is what Swans’ tours have become. Christoph Hahn seemed to break a string on his lap steel. Gira glared. Chris Pravdica blew out a bass amp. “We just blew one last night,” an exasperated Gira told the crowd. Once, I couldn’t tell if the frontman was motioning wildly to drummer Phil Puleo or merely dancing.

These moments are as much emblems of Swans’ insurmountable onstage intensity as they are breaks from it. Still, Gira was full of unadulterated pride as he introduced each player, one by one, just before disappearing into the night sans encore.

There have been previous incarnations of Swans, and maybe, God and Gira willing, there are more incarnations of Swans still to come. But Swans — unlike any other band “reunion,” a term that implies there is something in the past that must be revived — keeps its focus trained unflinchingly on the present. There may never again be this incarnation of Swans.