Michael Gira prefers to call the version of Swans that emerged in early 2010 a reconstitution rather than a reunion. It is easy to see why the word choice matters to him; the term “reunion” comes with a great deal of historical baggage that simply does not apply to the band’s current iteration. They have been very busy, but not with nostalgia — only one pre-hiatus song regularly appears in their set list. Instead, they have gone on a creative tear, releasing two new albums that stand tall among one of the starkest and most powerful catalogs in rock music.
(If you have somehow avoided Swans so far, you owe it to yourself to check out Aaron Lariviere’s excellent Counting Down feature on the band. I am still mad at him for his placement of Filth, Cop, and My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, though.)
Swans have toured heavily since their reemergence, and live performance is important to their experimental process. Their new material is only loosely structured and relies heavily on interpretation and improvisation. During the tour that led up to the recording of 2012’s blowout The Seer, the band honed the album’s material by letting the songs breathe and mutate onstage, returning to successful experiments and culling weaknesses. The audience benefits from this recursive process; I’ve seen Swans three times since they started touring again, and all three rank among the best live shows I’ve ever seen.
That process has begun again. On the first night of the Northside Music Festival, a packed-in crowd at Greenpoint’s Warsaw event hall was treated to a number of new songs that will appear on their 13th album. Some of them have been in Swans’ set for at least a year; others sounded utterly unfamiliar.
But first that crowd had to get inside, which proved challenging. Perhaps Northside’s badge-entrance scheme caused complications, or perhaps the Warsaw staff created a hold-up with their rather too thorough security check. Either way, a lengthy entrance line and an unseasonably cold rain dampened spirits even an hour after the official door time.
This was poor luck for Chelsea Wolfe, who opened the show. Stereogum has called her folk songs “murky,” “lo-fi,” “gothed-out,” and “dark-pop,” which pretty much sums up her performance as well. The live version of her work mirrors the stillness and minimalism of the recorded version: she engaged in little onstage movement, but used enough PA reverb to justify your soggy metaphor of choice. (Bathed in reverb? Soaked in reverb? Drenched in reverb?)
It would’ve been a tremendous performance had it taken place in front of a rapt audience in a small, dark room. The trouble for Wolfe was that the Warsaw holds a thousand people, the house lights were half-on during her set, and the audience was decidedly un-rapt. Rather, they were still filtering in from the rain, buying booze, and talking noisily amongst themselves. Wolfe and her two backing performers battled waves of crowd chatter all the way through her 40-minute set. I’m not fond of her music, but I felt bad for her and was happy that she played through the distracting clamor with poise. If anything, her set gained momentum as it progressed, peaking with the vocal loops of “The Way We Used To.”
Swans have a recent habit of gigging with restrained openers — along with Wolfe, they’ve done NYC dates with A Hawk And A Hacksaw, Marissa Nadler, and Devendra Banhart during the past couple of years. I get the feeling that this trend is deliberate. For one thing, it spares the opener the unenviable task of attempting to out-intense Gira and company onstage. For another, it spares the audience the unenviable task of enduring three hours of physical and psychological beatdown instead of two.
Swans’ current instrumental lineup — two electric guitarists, one lap-steel guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, and a percussionist/multi-instrumentalist — can and does summon walls of blinding, unstructured psychedelic noise at will. Sometimes they telegraph these freeform freakouts with huge build-ups, like the world’s most aggro post-rock band. At other times the vortex appears without warning. The threat of them hangs in the air like a haze, and they can be taxing to endure.
But Swans’ live set does not feel taxing. In spite of their severe reptuation, they are really, really fun to watch. Gira is a powerhouse vocalist; he wailed like a muezzin on the unreleased opener “To Be Kind” and bellowed ominous slogans in French and Spanish during the absurd 50-minute version of “The Seer” that closed their two-hour set. He’s also an amusing and sardonic physical performer. His wigglepuss dancing rivals Thom Yorke’s for weirdness; one does not expect to see quasi-disco flailing during “Coward.” And the rest of the band, tense and focused though they are throughout the set, engage the eye with their master-level performances.
But Gira’s onstage communication with his band members is easily the most remarkable component of Swans’s live show. Each time I have seen them in the past, Gira has become visibly frustrated with one of his compatriots at least once. This show, however, was all smooth sailing. No harsh words were exchanged; Gira even smiled through much of the performance. Their union is strong.