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Live Review: Swans

27 January 2015 | 10:13 am | Simone Ubaldi

An hour and half was plenty for Swans at the Corner.

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True to form, Michael Gira has nixed the air-conditioning. The audience is a sweating sausage fest, men outnumbering women at a ratio of roughly ten to one, and everyone is dressed in black. This is a very particular kind of crowd; gluttons for punishment. They want a hammering.

Swans’ performance opens with a rumbling gong and drum duet and immediately the floor starts quivering. Gira enters, a grey ghost with an elbow supporter, unwashed and unkempt hair dripping down the side of his face. He opens his mouth to sing, but it’s an incantation: a rubbery, tribal wailing sound. The music is bulging around him, pushing out against the blackness and contracting. For a moment we are convinced. The room is swallowed up and the floor starts quivering. Our ears feel wet, the sound is so big. The endless cycling riffs of three guitarists and the gunning snare rolls from drummer wunderkind Phil Puleo seem to bend space around us. This is madness made flesh.

As the set continues, it gets harder to invest in the music. There are too many distractions. The man behind the gong emerges to smash mechanically at high-set cymbals and it transpires that he is long-haired and shirtless – aggressively shirtless – with a barrel torso and beard that connects directly to his chest hair. “I think his name is Thor,” says a friend. Gira is an iconoclast but also a bit ridiculous and he is sometimes hard to watch. He starts off making incomprehensible gestures at the crowd then graduates to his patented brand of shamanistic dancing.  He looks like an incorrigible hippie during A Little God In My Hands, waving his arms around like he bombed too much DMT and the trees are attacking. His voice, meanwhile, is not good. When he isn’t wailing, he sings like David Byrne having a stroke, ponderously arty, taking Swans’ great, bleak, majestic flights of music and sinking them back down to earth. (Thank god for Thor Harris, the magical pixie who emerges with an electric violin that looks from a distance like it’s made from an elephant tusk, later reappearing with a trombone and playing it with one hand while playing xylophone with the other.)

Swans play for two hours and a half hours, as is their wont, but a 20-minute interlude of rumbling disorder punctuated by Gira, squealing in tongues about “holy fuckers” and other quasi-religious concerns, is our cue to leave. Their sound is epic but it’s awfully pretentious. An hour and half is plenty.

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