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SWANS BRINGS BLISSFUL CACOPHONY TO PORT CITY MUSIC HALL (Maine Today)

Written by: Robert Ker

For a certain segment of the Southern Maine population, the Swans concert at Port City Music Hall on Feb. 17 had been circled on the calendar for some time, and with good reason. Not only are Swans one of the most celebrated cult acts on the rock circuit, but they are also the perfect live act for a city that is lined with crunchy snowbanks, coated in a thick layer of brown sludge and abused by angry, Arctic winds. The people of Portland have had enough of all of this, and Swans makes music for people who have had enough.

They come billed loosely as “metal” or “noise rock,” but they contain neither the full-throttle adrenaline that the former often implies nor the abrasiveness that the latter does. Instead, they offer melodic, droning passages that stretch for miles, frequently involve chanting, and can slowly crescendo into majestic waves. One would almost call it peaceful if it wasn’t loud enough to register on the Richter scale.

The set offered few of these songs, but there was a lot of meat on those bones. Several compositions pushed up against the 20-minute mark, with long introductions in which a violin, trombone or chimes rubbed against traditional rock instrumentation to summon a luxurious bed of atmosphere. Eventually, vocals — unintelligible over the sheer cacophony — would slide in. Rarely would this glacial atmosphere thaw, but when it did, it felt momentous. “A Little God in My Hands,” for example, got heads in the crowd bobbing with a bit more oomph in the drumming and a bass that snaked forward in workmanlike fashion, dragging the song behind it like a ball and chain.

It took a lot of grit to get the band here. The last few years have represented a remarkable second act in the life of Swans. They came up alongside Sonic Youth in the years after punk rock in early-1980s New York City, growing in popularity without ever quite enjoying breakout success, and dissolving shortly after 1996’s “Soundtracks for the Blind.” In 2010, frontman Michael Gira assembled a new iteration of the band with a mixture of old and new members. Thanks in part to some fawning press, he discovered a fresh audience and offered them three impressive albums in a row. The most recent of which, “To Be Kind,” provided the lion’s share of the live set.

Even though Swans have released music since 1983, the Port City show was their first-ever concert in Maine and took place just a few days before Gira’s 61st birthday. As a frontman, his chiseled, no-nonsense stature suited the performance, as he struck a figure as hardened and imposing as the music he played. Oftentimes he would slowly raise his arms, as if his hands were levitated by the vibrations his band produced, and during these moments he could have passed as a man performing an incantation. Even though his music sounds as if it comes from a dark, twisted place, moments like these could only be described as blissful.

Concert review

WHAT: Swans

WHERE: Port City Music Hall

REVIEWED: Feb. 17

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