Los Angeles Times Live Review

Like the opening moment of a meditation session, the rock band Swans commenced the first of two sold-out nights at the Roxy in West Hollywood with the ringing of a gong.

The gesture, driven with delicate mallet bumps by multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris, was a signal, a directive to the packed club on Wednesday: You are here. Turn off those noisy machines inside your skulls and in your pockets and focus on the Now.

Over the next few minutes, the tone gained heft, a kind of thickness, and one by one the five other Swans appeared, grabbed an instrument and started adding to the hum. 

What grew from electric guitars, a yowling lap steel, bass and percussion evolved into a heaving mass, one that seemed to sway as it gained volume. Ten minutes in, this hum, still lacking a basic rock rhythm, was a cascading rumble of harmonic overtones, feedback and echo, like a locomotive on looped tracks whooshing by again and again at full speed. It was awesome, and it only grew from there.

At the middle was the imposing Michael Gira, 60, statuesque with a carved face, stringy shoulder-length hair, an intense presence girded by a spiritual devotion to sonic epiphany. Through two-plus hours of voluminous intensity, Gira and his band birthed a once-in-a-lifetime landslide of frequencies. Rock minus the A-A-B-A song structure. Rock like an avalanche.


Born as a nihilistic Lower East Side noise band that harnessed the aggression of punk with the harmonic chaos of the early 1980s no wave scene, Gira's long running Swans project was on the verge of being a footnote until recently. Early gigs were visceral pound-fests that set aside melody and groove in favor of raw aggression. (Want to hear something scary? Try "Public Castration Is a Good Idea," the band's 1986 live album.) In the '90s and early '00s, Gira pulled back, explored melody and silence in a project called Angels of Light while working to retain the same intensity. It didn't fit as well. 

But at the point when most artists have already peaked, Gira reactivated and reinvented Swans in 2010 and dropped a few massive albums -- by far the best work of his career. 

Drawing from this most recent output, mostly the remarkable new album, "To Be Kind," and 2012's "The Seer," Gira howled, chanted, spoke in tongues, delivered primal all-caps declarations such as "I NEED LOVE" with blunt force while the band built vast cathedrals to surround him.

Close your eyes during "A Little God on My Hands" and the song enveloped you, Swans' levitating mass of noise and rhythm, partially structured, partially improvised, built around a stutter-step mantra. 

"Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)," a song dedicated to blues mystic Howlin' Wolf, opened with a subdued, mesmerizing bass and percussion meditation while Christoph Hahn's twisted lap-steel lines and Harris' bowed electric violin moaned. The slab -- "song" is too diminutive a term for what this thing was -- lasted for nearly 15 minutes. Given the opportunity, I would have lived within that mantra for days. 

Hard, fluid and overwhelming, the sound from six men and their strings, drums, horns and drums stripped rock of hooks, choruses and bridges. Difficult? Absolutely. Nearly impossible, some of it.

But to me it was some sort of miracle: I've never heard anything like this in a club. What could have been an amplified monstrosity instead arrived as a divine thing of overwhelming beauty, with beating heart and pure spirit.  

Randall Roberts/Los Angeles Times 9/12