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SWANS LIVE MONTREAL REVIEW
Pop Montreal 2010: Swans, with Baby Dee and Lily Fawn at Le National, Oct. 1
By Jordan ZIVITZ SAT, OCT 2 2010
Speaking to The Gazette recently, Michael Gira summarized his rationale for resurrecting Swans after a 13-year deep freeze: "I want to be in the centre of a very large, overwhelming, body-destroying sound." He wasn't kidding.
The overwhelming part started Friday at Le National before the band even began playing, with a queasy taped drone piped in at daunting volume for 10 minutes. The body-destroying part came soon enough. After Samsonian percussionist Thor Harris hammered out a mesmerizing pattern on a six-foot-tall rack of bells, the rest of the sextet joined in the hammering on a lengthy instrumental that was brutally elemental and left the audience visibly gasping for air. It was a shock to everyone's system -- not least of all diehards who doubted the band's new incarnation would live up to the legend.
It was nearly half an hour into the show before Gira sang. When he did, the ominous twang employed in Angels of Light -- the dark roots collective he initiated after Swans' demise in 1997 -- was absent, often replaced by a hellbeast baritone. Vintage Swans, in other words, although any nostalgia ended with the confirmation that Gira could still bellow himself red in the face. Original-period Swans songs were rearranged nearly beyond recognition -- for the sake of finding new meaning in old vitriol, not for the sake of being capricious. Your Property was even more grinding, more dangerous than the original; the holy roar and merciless percussion of Beautiful Child brought on severe heart palpitations. In a display of Gira's restlessness, even new compositions were made new(er); No Words/No Thoughts was twice as fast and five times as vicious as the version on the two-week-old album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky.
Every song was raging, surging, hypnotic in its repetition, and head-explodingly loud. But as Gira has pointed out, being loud isn't the point. The point is being all-consuming and impossible to escape. Gira couldn't have kept us prisoner alone. Harris and drummer Phil Puleo were an astonishing pair, the former often clobbering cymbals while the latter would beat out the song's primal backbone. Christoph Hahn unleashed demon shrieks and menacing atmospheres from his steel guitar, and long-time Swans guitarist Norman Westberg calmly scraped out nightmare riffs. It must be said that ultimately, very little of this felt negative: body-destroying, certainly, but far too cathartic to be soul-destroying.
There are no words for the sheer force of Swans' set. This was music that had to be felt to be understood -- and it was felt, not just heard. It isn't an exaggeration to say you could feel the air move when Chris Pravdica churned out a monster bass line. There was no mosh pit, no stage diving, and yet the nearly two-hour show left plenty of fans looking and feeling battered. If you glanced around when the show ended (the only way it could: in near silence, with Gira singing Little Mouth's a-cappella conclusion), just about every face was dazed and exhausted. What the hell just happened? For my money, what just happened wasn't only a no-brainer candidate for the most exciting gig of 2010, but a new entry on the list of the 10 greatest performances I've witnessed in my lifetime.
-- Jordan Zivitz
NY TIMES LIVE REVIEW OCT 11 2010 by Ben Ratliff
Michael Gira spent a lot of time onstage at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple on Friday making circular motions with his right hand. The patterns were mostly parallel to the ground: whirlpools, force fields, tornados.
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He made the gesture when he wasn’t singing in his dry, commanding baritone, and when this new version of his band Swans was doing what it does best, a refinement of an old strategy: launching loud, sliding chords on the waves of slowed-down rhythms that threaten to become arrhythmic. Swans existed from 1982 to 1997, and this version includes Norman Westberg, who played guitar on most of the band’s records through the ’80s; the four others on the tour have been collaborators at various times in Mr. Gira’s steady flow of work since then.
In advance of this tour — weeks of one-nighters across North America and Europe, with more to come next year, in theaters bigger than where the band used to perform — Mr. Gira (pronounced jhee-RAH) stressed the point to interviewers that he does not consider this a reunion but a way forward. Surely he’s capitalizing on old memories and an old brand: the merchandise tables, selling T-shirts with new and old Swans designs — dollar signs, teeth, a splatter pattern with the word “No” in the middle — were doing brisk business, and nearly every item was signed by Mr. Gira himself.
But it’s not an empty claim. There’s a new Swans album, a very good one: “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky” (Young God Records), which sounds like an arrow shot forward from the second half of the band’s life, once it had broadened its language, figuring out how to be serene and still severe.
And this particular lineup, different from any other version of Swans, has its own sound. Mr. Westberg and Mr. Gira both play electric guitar, with Christoph Hahn creating bright, metallic roughage on lap-steel guitar as a background. Chris Pravdica, the bassist, spent nearly the entire show with his back to the audience, facing the hard-hitting drummer, Phil Puleo; they were maintaining the rhythm seriously.
Thor Harris played extra percussion, doubling the stomps and cymbal crashes, and also playing long passages — central to the new Swans music — of dulcimer, vibraphone and tubular bells. In a band with this much middle-age male energy, it is good to have a long-haired man named Thor hitting long metal pipes with hammers.
Swans’ music is surely loud and aggressive and suggests a kind of exorcism. Mr. Gira has always had a volatile relationship with his fans. At this stage of his life, his form of crowd control and stage manners is to act basically level and courteous and then once in a while, in a quiet moment, scream at the audience.
The lyrics of some of his older songs, like “Your Property,” played on Friday, signify the exact opposite of what’s actually happening in the music, a ritual self-abasement in the middle of a power trip. But at the same time Friday’s show suggested the music’s flip side, which is sensuousness. This stuff isn’t alien to man and nature; it’s graceful and body centered, and now a lot more so than before.
The performance had a strange effect on the audience. Many who weren’t stunned and stuck in one spot, following the pacing and the commitment of the group, the rolling, sea-chantey feeling of the new and old songs, strode around fixing one another with charged, satisfied, flirting looks. It was a charmed 90 minutes. Very definitely someone was running this show.