Swans Loudly Helped Thalia Hall Reach Transcendence (Gapers Block)
By Julian Ramirez
It's incredibly hard to prepare for a Swans concert. It makes no difference whether you're familiar with Swans' leader Michael Gira and his experimental post-rock or not. Their live show is consistently visceral experience that tests the very idea of the band and the creation of music. Swans' songs have never been easy to take in as they dredge down to some very scathing and torturous sounds. Despite the inherent harshness, there is a longing for love underlining their existence that somehow become incredibly rewarding the more you listen. It's a tumultuous back and forth that makes the band all the more interesting.
The closest one can get to being ready for a Swans show is to listen to their latest work. Their last two albums The Seer and To Be Kind clocked in over two hours a piece, indulging further into Gira's dark and inviting noises. These albums are the height of Gira and his current bandmates impressive collaboration. This weekend at Thalia Hall, Swans performed about six songs during their near non-stop two hour plus performance. It was one of the loudest and most transcendent concerts I've had the pleasure of attending.
Starting off the night was Xylouris White. Throughout the wait in line and subsequent conversations in the venue, it became apparent that many in attendance were unfamiliar with these two men. Explaining how they traverse through the world's music in each song, deftly lead by Giorgos Xylouris' lute and Jim White extraordinary drumming, left people cold. Some of the crowds' anticipation for Swans overrode the idea of an opening band, dismissing them before he show had begun. However, within moments of Xylouris White's arrival onstage it was made very clear that one couldn't ignore them. Elements of nearly every genre began colliding and forming a new sound. Jazz, post-punk, and folk styles from far of regions like Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East merged together seamlessly. The only recourse for the audience after this impressive start was to extol Xylouris White as they performed.
Xylouris and White fell into an otherworldly trance during their songs. Xylouris' fingers danced up and down the neck of his lute masterfully. If his head isn't nestled down on the body of the instrument in metered meditation, it's held high releasing a low booming singing voice or looking over to White in silent conference. They acted like a hive mind at times, switching up parts and speeding things up with a mere glance and smile. These moments showed the seamless prowess the two are capable of. White in particular had a supernatural way with his drums. White's arms were that of a madman's, moving so vigorously around his body all the while smattering the drums with unbelievable finesse. He switched out drumsticks in a blink, letting the sound of placing them down become a natural part of the song. Xylouris and White's faces looked completely unassuming as they performed their respective instrumental acrobatics, confident in having secured an entire venue's adulation.
Listening to Swans requires an understanding of patience and their live show is no different. Swans grand display began like many of their songs, with a slow build that introduces the listener to the fundamentals of the band's sound with methodical precision. Thor Harris came out and began slowly hitting a large suspended gong.When the echoing rhythm reached an exhaustive tone, Phil Publo came out and added drums Christoph Hahn followed a few minutes later, sharply dressed in a grey suit with a determined grimace across his face. His lap steel guitar added an eerie note to the emerging song. The song climbed further and further until the remaining members Guitarist Norman Westberg , bassist Christopher Pravdica, and Michael Gira finally emerged.
Swans set list was somewhat indescribable. There were definitely a couple of songs taken fromTo Be Kind, but the rest seemed like new creations. The band tend to use shows to work out new songs and breathe a certain life into them. Swans craft every song with such careful attention that its easy to drift away into their songs. Its very difficult to differentiate between the newer elements when the songs seem destined to bleed into one another. The set opener "Frankie M" was one of those newer song that just absorbs listeners. It captures Gira's repetitious inflection and lyrics that reveal a beautiful sadness amidst the thunderous instrumentation.
Saying that this concert was loud would be a severe understatement. Nearly everyone that was standing towards the front of the stage was wearing some sort of ear protection. Despite with such precautions being taken, Swans' sounds surged and found their way through. My ears are still ringing days later from the utter onslaught of their performance. If the aural attack was not enough, the physical experience of the show is unlike any other. The sound waves emanating from the speakers were so massive they shook the foundation of both Thalia Hall and the crowd. At one point they had to paused the show to check an amp that may have blown due to the intensity of the band. It was so powerful that a few people left the coveted spot and fled to the rear of the room.
It was impossible to escape the onslaught of Swans no matter where anyone was standing, Gira's wild movements could be experienced even from the back wall where I ended up. He would often outstretch his arms, moving his hands like predatory bird filled with purpose as he directed band members and sound technicians. His movements were graceful and had it not been for a flub which caused Gira to stop suddenly and angrily look at the side of the stage. Gira emotions reached their peak on the final song, a long and menacing one that emphasized the more rocking elements of the band. It was a final and befitting send off of such a beautiful cacophony of a show.