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Brutal. Hellaciously loud. Single-minded. Monolithic. I’m sure all these and more adjectives have been used to describe the sonic art that Michael Gira and his rotating ensemble known as Swans have created for decades. Active since the earliest days of noise rock, Gira has developed one of the more uncompromising canons since the electric guitar was invented. He’s moved on from the sludgy death march material of his early days, even flirting with delicate beauty for a while via The Burning World, the short-lived stint on a major label) before retreating back to full control for a few years until imploding the band in the late ’90s.
2010 saw the ashes rekindled to life, when Gira would assemble the current lineup and rule the earth with an iron first via four records. Guitarist Norman Westberg is the longest tenured member of the band, but both pedal steel guitarist Christoph Hahn and drummer Phil Puleo were involved in the pre-hiatus Swans, with bassist Chris Pravdica and multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris filling out the ensemble. Before the latest record, The Glowing Man, was release, Gira announced that this phase of his musical endeavors would come to an end; after touring on the material, the current lineup would be dissolved and he would move onto whatever is the next chapter of his evolution. Aside from the substitution of Harris for keyboardist Paul Wallfisch, it was the same core unit that’s been supporting Gira on the road since 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky.
The last several tours of Swans has been notable for the airing of previously-unreleased material, and this curtain call tour would be no different. A new composition called “The Knot” kicked things off, with Gira occasionally glancing over to the lyrics perched on a music stand as he led his band with a steely glance and periodic gestures, every bit the disciplined band leader such as John Zorn or James Brown. If you’ve never been to a Swans show, and somehow forgot to bring ear protection, that’s not only a bad decision but potentially leading to an irreversible outcome. The sound filled the room like a bomb going off, Gira and Westberg eschewing effects and just blasting us with pure guitar tones, with Puleo’s thunderous drums rattling molars.
Gira’s continually looking forward stance meant that of the seven songs played over the roughly 140 minutes, most were from The Glowing Man, including the final knockout blow of the title song, a thirty minute opus that alternately led to dropped jaws or shut eyes, the audience enrapt as the sonic tsunami washed over them. “Amnesia,” a track from 1992’s Love Of Life. Perhaps Gira revisited this song as a result of the last year’s deluxe reissue. In any event, it’s clear that Gira has no time for dewy-eyed nostalgia, admitting as such in a 2014 interview with SF Weekly that he can’t even recall what his early material sounds like, and that “To me, that music is just something I had to do to get to the next phase.” Whatever that next phase will be, it certainly won’t be boring.
Opening duties were handled by Okkyung Lee who silently took the stage, pulled her cello from its travel case, sat down and proceeded to challenge every assumption ever held about how to play that instrument. Most people recall the sonorous, melancholy sounds that abetted “Eleanor Rigby,” but in her hands it was an instrument of percussion, drones, and dynamic attacks. At one point, she conjured up the same sort of sound from the drawn out ending of Sonic Youth’s “Expressway To Yr Skull.”
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