Fascinated by the Brutal & Perverse

The New York Sun | by Martin Edlund

LIVE Review from Tonic, NYC, April 2003

Michael Gira might be accused of false advertising.His former band,the Swans (1982–1997) produced anything but the tranquil music implied by its name. And his current band, Angels of Light, which played Tonic Saturday and Sunday nights, dwells mostly on the themes of personal demons and darkness.
His appearance is also a false advertisement. Gira dresses in a simple gray suit, his hair oiled to one side like a country farmer. His face is waxen, expressionless. But there’s no escaping his eyes. They are black pools: Shallow and penetrating, they peer into you even as they keep you out. There’s ferocity behind them.
For Saturday’s show, Gira played with former Swans collaborators Christoph Hahn and Patrick Fondiller, as well as surrealist folk singer and labelmate Devendra Banhart (who also opened). All four played guitars (occasionally lap steel, electric bass, and mandolin), building up intricate musical structures that, when they worked, approached free jazz, and when it didn’t, became an unholy mess.
Although Gira will be forever known as one of the pioneers of New York’s noise-rock scene in the early 1980s, his themes belong to another category: art fascinated by the brutal and perverse. In literature, his equivalents are Selby and Burroughs; in film, Cronenberg and Lynch. In music, it’s a strain that runs through the Velvet Underground, Joy Division, Nine Inch Nails,Tool, and Godspeed You Black Emperor!
Gira has described the newest Angels album — "Everything is Good Here / Please Come Home," released recently on his own Young God Records — as a response to "personal/historical/political" disasters.
The song "Nations" was inspired, he told us, by"watching TV in a time of crisis."It was structured like a spoken-word piece, each line ending in the word "nations" intoned in Gira’s rich baritone. It ended — as so many songs seemed to — in a wreck, with Gira slapping his acoustic guitar and screaming the word "Freedom" again and again.
The night’s most satisfying number was the more subdued "Kosinski." It began with the three backing musicians finger-picking their guitars, creating a voluptuous rippling effect. Gira’s vocals sounded almost tender as he sang them over the top, "When the light shows / through your window / I can see you there / in the mirror / touching blond hair."
But it, too, had a dark undercurrent. It’s the song of a voyeur directed at the unknowing object of his gaze. The final line, "These are the eyes of an animal," can be understood either as apology or self-acquittal. Hearing it, I couldn’t help thinking of the Joy Division’s "Atmosphere." Like Ian Curtis, Gira sings in an expansive monotone, the vocal equivalent of an unblinking stare.
Gira’s explorations into man’s dark nature can be instructive, but by show’s end the feeling was one of overwhelmed exhaustion. He concluded the main set with a song called "All Souls’ Rising" about an 18 th-century Haitian slave revolt. It ran to almost 15 minutes.As Gira yelped and howled over a drone of noise, fans sat at the foot of the stage with their eyes closed, absorbing the slaps of sound in a state of total submission.