Published Sep 06, 2014Taking the stage first, Swans' hairy everyman Thor Harris started working away at a gong with two mallets, joined on the cymbals by drummer Phil Puleo a minute later, and then Christoph Hahn layering his lap-steel on top. Eventually, bassist Chris Pravdica and guitarist Norman Westberg took their places, and the post-punk messiah himself, Michael Gira, appeared centre stage. Staccato riffs started piling on each other as Gira swayed back and forth, nibbling at the mic, all of which would coalesce into "Frankie M," their druggy set-opening track of choice these days.
Gira was a menacing presence when he chanted his mystical incantations and bent the will of his Gibson Lucille to his will, his salt and pepper mane flowing free in the club dankness. Yet, as "Frankie M" came to an abrupt stop almost a half-hour after it began, he gave a humble thanks, and mumbled something about how his amp blew before he even got onstage. He could command fire and brimstone, but he came across as a simple, down-to-earth man.
Gira's most obvious messianic parallels came in "A Little God in My Hands," from their 2014 album To Be Kind. With the track built around a loping Primus-like bassline, and Gira occasionally going offbeat to give it a quasi-reggae feel, he held his arms out like Christ on the cross as he screamed, "What's my name?" As the song ended, he hung his arms out like that again, waving with both of them in a weirdly celebratory, spasmodic fashion.
Gira was on it all night, though. In the intro to "The Apostate" from 2012's The Seer, he shook some sleigh bells and mumbled into the mic like Dr. Gonzo on an adrenochrome trip, and later put his guitar down to simply flail in no particular direction. He then sang with his crucifix arms raised, and eventually grabbed the mic off the stand to head-bang while growling into it. The track closed with him flapping like a mutant bird at Puleo, while the drummer beat the crap out of a tom-tom. To see the conviction in his eyes, he seemed capable of resurrecting Chester Burnett as he sang "Just a Little Boy," which climaxed with one of their most epic riffs.
Altogether, they presented the antithesis of prog-rock: no flash, no predictable swells, no tuning delays, no new age lyrics — just raw, seething discomfort at eardrum-shattering volume for extended periods of time, with only six or seven songs spread across their two-hour set. They're clearly capable of instrumental indulgence, considering their collective decades of experience and the ability of Harris to play everything from trombone and clarinet to tubular bells and violin, but their energy was insular, a feedback loop as the band focussed their energy on their leader. In turn, he gave it back to them from the core, motioning frantically like a shamanic orchestra conductor at times, periodically turning to scatter shots into the darkness.
To witness their blues-influenced post-punk and noise-rock jams develop is like watching a pot boil, but with the pot full of peyote, the payoff was transcendence; Gira was our spirit guide. Granted, he delivered little banter aside from the odd yet heartfelt thank you, but, a man of his word, Gira came back out to sign stuff and shake hands with fans at the merch booth. He may be a godlike figure to many, but he still lives among the people.