Swans @ Le National | October 1
Earlier this year Michael Gira announced that he was restarting Swans, refusing to label this reformation as a reunion. The temptation is of course to compare this latest beast with the now legendary group, particularly those of us who were too young to have had the opportunity to see Swans infamous live show the first time around (they were so loud that they are said to have made audience members vomit). From 1982 through 1997, this original incarnation of Swans varied greatly in style and personnel. Yet even their mellower albums still stand as some of the most intense, dark, and powerful music ever made. Since Swans dissolution, Gira has recorded several albums with his successor project, the Angels of Light, including a collaboration with Akron/Family, released a few solo albums, produced visual art, and run the successful label Young Gods (including the aforementioned bands as well as introducing the world to Devendra Banhart, among other notable acts.) Swans recently released My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, an album which in many ways sounds like Angels of Light yet is unmistakably Swans. In fact, many of the compositions began as Angels songs, before being reworked with the sonic expansiveness and crushing heaviness that defines the group. Still, My Father seems more often than not to showcase the aged Michael Gira, with clear distinctions between instruments and a twang in his voice. Much of their set on Fridays show drew on this material, and clearly dispelled any doubts that Swans, now made up of visibly older men, had lost any of their intensity.
The crowd had a fairly large number of women, yet there is an unmistakably masculine quality to Swans music. Perhaps the exclusion of Jarboe in this version of Swans enforces this image. In any case, this is no nostalgia trip, but more akin to a decent into Hell. Before beginning to play, Gira asked the venue manager to turn off the air conditioning, “so that the audience will sweat.” And sweat we did. A drone was played over the house speakers for many minutes, until finally percussionist Thor Harris appeared on stage, literally hammering out a pattern on a rack of bells as tall as himself. After 10 minutes, the other five members of the band came on stage, and they gradually played a drone that increased in volume for another 10 minutes. This experience was so dazing that by the time Gira finally released his baritone, it was clear that Swans were back in all their glory.
It is imperative that the sheer volume of Swans live be stressed. Particularly in a theatre with acoustics such as Le National, the sound was beyond merely loud, but left no room to mistake the physicality of the sound that was pummeling us all. I actually feared for permanent damage to my eardrums–I’ve never seen so many concert goers asking for ear plugs. Some might consider such an experience torturous, or masochistic, however once one gives in to the experience, there is a communal sense of catharsis, worship, and sacrifice, that is indubitably powerful. “The Sound,” Gira said to the audience, “It pushes, pulls, retreats. … It’s kinda like…” he paused for a sip of water before the band crashed in. Heaviness is more than a sound or attitude, but being able to channel the physicality of the medium. Though Gira may not be as insane as he was in his youth, he can still roar as mightily as Satan himself. Gira’s recent solo album I am Not Insane (which featured early version of several songs which made it onto My Father) makes a fair point, and should be taken seriously (if with a grain of salt). Because of Swans infamy, Gira is often described as insane, yet in person he comes off as friendly, or, if anything, as a bit reserved, even shy. His on stage persona however still channels the intensity one would expect. Though he kept banter from stage to a minimum, when he did address the crowd it was with a sense of appreciation, perhaps still unable to process the impact his group has made.
Anyone can see the intensity in their playing, but the band also often assumed a casual sort of swagger that struck me as disconnected from the music that they were creating. The renditions of songs new and old were infused with an energy distinct from their recorded counterparts, and older songs in particular were rearranged to suit this latest incarnation of the group. Without question, a must see live experience. Though nothing can possibly recreate the experience of being there ~ words surely fail ~ the photographs below at least capture some small sliver of the intensity of that night.
As testament to Swan’s status as one of the most influential groups in alternative music, the audience included many prominent members of Montreal’s musical community, including Johnson Cummings (Bionic, USA out of Vietnam,) Eric Quach (thisquietarmy,) and several members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the CST records family.
Opening sets were played by Lily Fawn and tour mates Baby Dee, (more of which will be said in separate reviews,) both on the gentler side yet somehow an appropriate preparation for Swans.
Words by Joseph Sannicandro
Photos by Bachar Bachara