Swans Le National, Montreal QC, February 19
Published Feb 20, 2015How the fuck do you talk about Swans?
Seriously, someone tell me. I could barely talk at all for a good two hours after the show ended, and not just because, even with very good earplugs, my head was ringing and my hearing was cottony and distant. No. It wasn't that my ears were ringing, though they were. It was that my body was ringing.
No other band are capable of generating a full-contact, visceral and aural live experience the way that Swans do. This is not merely a wall of sound, a relentless crush of punishing sonic energy; it is enveloping and immersive, designed to overwhelm but not all at once, a slow drowning in sound that turns the listener's body into a tuning fork. It's odd to feel so smashed, so obliterated and yet be listening so hard, not trying to block out what is already too much, far too much, but to take even more of it in. It's a wonder to realize you can feel your organs against each other, your bones resonant, your teeth vibrating in your gums. It's hard to stay anywhere close to the stage, an act of profound endurance; it helps to have something to hold on to.
Michael Gira commands the stage like a mad preacher, his arms often raised and spread in a pose that seems sacrificial, beatific. Sometimes he would undulate his wrists in slow circles, as though handling invisible snakes. He often flicked his hands aggressively at the audience, as though hurling lightning bolts, his face contorted; later, he struck himself across the face repeatedly, mouth agape, somehow still startled by the violence he was inflicting upon himself. His vocals alternated between a rhythmic, ceremonial keening, like an orderly orthodox chant, and wild ululation, speaking in tongues.
The first three-quarters of the set was an exercise in aural overwhelming, drenching the audience in sound like sheet rain and hurricanes of sound through long, brutal versions of "A Little God In My Hands" and "The Cloud of Unknowing." The climax of the set was at once the most violent and structured, a typhoon-like rendition of "Bring The Sun / Black Hole Man" that shook itself, and the audience, apart by the end.
But maybe, the most exceptional thing about the violence of this Swans show — and it is violence, in the most decadent sense of the word — was how loving and intimate it was. After pummelling the audience for over an hour, Gira paused to squint out at the crowd and ask if the white light pointed outward was too bright.
"I want to see your faces," he explained, almost gently. Then, at the end of the night, before giving praise to his band mates and cheekily calling himself "Marcel Duchamp," he growled for all the houselights to be turned on so he could properly see everyone, and then spent a long time looking out, making eye contact, and smiling.