SWANS: THE AGONY OF MICHAEL GIRA
BY: A.F. CORTÉS
Every Swans show seems like a masochistic ordeal of sonic survival. Michael Gira and company are on a mission to annihilate the audiences’ ears with a constant repetition of monotonous riffs at the decibels of a volcano’s explosion. But, as in any dysfunctional relationship, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
In this iteration the band feels heavier in layered melodies and lighter in percussion. The first noticeable element was the absence of the great shirtless-gladiator-looking percussionist Thor Harris. Some audience members dared to ask about him, but as usual, Michael Gira’s stage persona only cares about the present and never dwells in the past, yet he answered starting the next song with an unfazed look.
The sound is subtly different; more ambient noises are in the background, yet the intensity of every Swans show is intact. The rest of the band were the usual musicians, with the exception of a keyboard player replacing Thor’s corner on stage; the power of the drummer Phil Puleo, the stoic attitude of Norman Westerberg on guitar, the energy of Christopher Pravdica on bass, the intensity of Christoph Hahn on steel guitar, and the agony of Michael Gira’s voice and guitar leading the band, made the sound intense and memorable. It was interesting to see the avant-garde musician John Zorn in the audience, you can draw many parallels to both artists as they live at the fringe of their music genres, unafraid of experimenting and challenging listeners with new sounds.
Swans was born to the no-wave scene of the 80s and ended in 1997. Yet in 2010, the band resuscitated with new members and a new sound. Since then, the band has released four brilliant and critically acclaimed albums. I had the fortune to see them live while touring “The Seer”, “To Be Kind” and now with the new album “The Glowing Man”. Each one of these records feels like a Tarkovsky film: a prolonged session of darkness, intensity and beauty. In my opinion, that is the purpose of art and experimental music; they need to challenge the status quo. And Michael Gira is no stranger to this.
“The Glowing Man” might be the final chapter of this version of Swans, as Michael Gira mentioned he is planning to evolve the band into a new stage. I just hope the hibernation won’t take another 16 year. As a music lover, I would love to hear a string of new Swans albums; but as an artist I understand the need to change and evolve into a more mature form, no matter the consequences.
The concert ended with the title track of the new album, and Gira’s final words were the lyrics to the song: “I am a glowing man, I am! I am a growing glowing man! I am nothing. What is, is, is, is, what?”. The climatic crescendo was the grand finale. As usual, there was no encore; lights up and instruments down.
As in any masochist relationship, a master and a servant are needed. In this case the band punished the audience’s ears with drilling sounds, and the public took the inflicted penalty with pain and pleasure. Every Swans show is intense, loud, heavy, subtle, sublime, earplugs are always needed and recommended, and last Friday on July twenty ninth, two thousand and sixteen, at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City was no different. I hope that no matter what comes next, Michael Gira will keep evolving his sound keeping his radical attitude intact.
filmmaker + photographer