No Wave legends Swans visit Newport’s Southgate
photo by: “We’re doing the best sonics I’ve ever experienced.” -Michael Gira brings Swans to Southgate House Revival on Tuesday, July 23; photo credit: Jennifer Church
You know how it usually goes when a legendary band considered long dead and gone reunites, right? Initial excitement of getting to see a once-defunct band live in concert, getting blown away at said concert, band then makes a new record only to have it pale in comparison to the recordings that said band became famous for and thus taking the wind out of your sails and making you secretly wish the band hadn’t gotten back together in the first place and soiled their legacy with new material. Thankfully, infamous NYC post-punk band Swans have managed to be one of the few reunions that have bucked that trend since reforming in 2010. The sextet has more than managed to deliver the goods in concert and have issued not one, but two albums since that time that make a case for being considered some of the best recordings Swans have ever made.
But before we talk about the here and now, a quick history lesson is in order for those unfamiliar with the staggering musical scope of Swans and its music: Forming in the wake of the New York City “No Wave” musical movement where artists used conventional musical instruments in order to convey artistically challenging non-musical ideas, Swans was the brainchild of vocalist and songwriter Michael Gira – often times just referred to as M. Gira. Despite the coming and going of many different backing musicians over the course of their initial 15 year career, Gira managed to convey an ever-evolving array of musical moods and concepts over the course of 11 studio recordings. In the band’s early days, Swans inhabited a musical landscape comparable to Killing Joke and Joy Division, but with an uglier, nastier disposition. The band chose to put emphasis on clanging, repetitive metallic percussion and hypnotic rhythms for the base of their songs, lending their first few records an industrial vibe in the truest sense of the word as clinging, clanging rhythms resembled something you’d hear in a factory as opposed to a rock concert.
While abrasive guitars added color, volume and melodic brutality to Swans’ sound, M. Gira baited audiences as a confrontational front man known for bellowing violent, misanthropic lyrics and sometimes physically assaulting audience members when the mood struck him to do so. But several years later, singer and keyboardist Jarboe joined Swans and before long there came a considerable shift in Swans’ musical direction as they toned down the harsher, noisier elements of their sound and began incorporating elements of folk music, gospel, blues and ambient music as they saw fit. By the time the band released its critically acclaimed album Soundtracks for the Blind in 1996, Gira believed that the band had musically come full circle and dissolved the group shortly thereafter, seemingly for good.
Then in 2010, Swans shocked the world by surprisingly posting up a brand new song on their MySpace page. The response to the new song was overwhelming and later that year saw the release of Swans’ first album in 14 years, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, which musically seemed to pick right up where Soundtracks for the Blind left off in the ‘90s.
“I restarted Swans out of boredom,” Gira joked. “I wanted to experience what Swans could offer again. I just saw an opportunity to create music that electrified me. I thought ‘why not reform Swans?’ I started to write music and it’s transformed into a vibrant beast that can elevate.”
With a worldwide tour that ensued 18 months following that album’s release, Swans did electrify. Just two years later, M. Gira seemed out to top not just himself in this new incarnation of Swans, but his entire musical career with the release of the universally critically acclaimed three-LP set The Seer. Clocking in at almost two hours in length, this album is a sprawling epic in every sense of the word, covering and expanding upon musical territory from throughout its career. Some tracks recall the folky ways of White Light from the Mouth of Infinity, some recall the grandiose pomp and circumstance of Children of God, some tracks recall the locked groove rhythms of Filth-era Swans and other tracks seamlessly cross-breed all of Swans’ sonic territory throughout their career while sounding even more majestic and rich than arguably any record Swans has ever made. And while The Seer has been the talk of the town since its release, M. Gira is already looking ahead to the next phase of Swans’ career.
“I don’t think about (The Seer) at all.” Gira said. “Now our live set consists of all new, non-recorded material. Ninety percent of it is unrecorded outside of YouTube.”
As for comparisons to the band’s past, M. Gira is particularly dismissive despite comparisons otherwise. “It’s nothing like the ‘80s or ‘90s,” he said. “We all contribute to the sounds, we’re all trying to make this sound happen. Some of (the new material) is more groove oriented, but not in a funky way. It’s a very joyful experience for all those concerned”.
And as for the future of Swans, Gira seems rather nonplussed about other people’s expectations. “It’s nothing like the ‘80s or ‘90s … it’s better,” Gira simply said. “We’re doing the best sonics I’ve ever experienced. I’ve got songs written on acoustic guitar and [we’re] gonna go in and make the best record possible. Songs and music change constantly. It’s chaos and ecstasy. Right now it’s my life’s work and everything I’ve put into it.”
Swans will perform Kentucky on Tuesday, July 23, at the Southgate House Revival, 111 E. 6th St. in Newport, Ky. Also on the bill are Pharmakon. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 DOS. Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m. For more information, please visit swans.pair.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Gary Spencer at GarySpencer@DaytonCityPaper.com.