Live Review, 9/10/12: Swans Reclaim No Wave from Hipsters at Regency Ballroom
Swans at the Regency Ballroom last night.
Monday, Sept. 10, 2012
Better than: Going deaf naturally.
You should know one thing in advance: A Swans show is not designed for your passive entertainment. In fact, it's less a concert than it is an endurance rally. They'd rather pummel you than please you -- and may the gods help you if you forgot your earplugs.
The recently reignited band -- originally formed in the early-'80s wake of the New York anti-movement known as No Wave -- may have gotten accolades from NPR for its expansive new double album, The Seer, but there's no AM radio lite rock to be found at a Swans concert. Tonight's performance was a two-hour marathon of heavy monochord stomps, machine-screech crescendoes, and mega-volume freakouts so loud that the Regency's PA system was quite frankly insufficient for the task. It was nothing if not powerfully, painfully loud.
Band leader Michael Gira, however, doesn't wield his band's infamously high-decibel power as a force of dominance. In fact, early Swans concerts were as much a form of self-abasement as they were a statement of might, and the band's newer material -- no matter how noisy -- is designed for transcendence, nodding towards the repetitive single-mindedness of Sufi trance or Indonesian gamelan far more than any form of pop. This is music whose primary purpose is ecstatic release, an annihilatory escape for anyone who can throw themselves into those crashing soundwaves and survive. Granted, many casual listeners probably found nothing to latch on to in tonight's frothy storm. But those who could swim their way through the tsunami were duly rewarded.
Tonight there also were many moments that recalled the dissonant guitar symphonies of another No Wave veteran -- Glenn Branca -- and perhaps this may be the most important legacy of the current Swans revival: After a decade of half-assed "dance punk" bands claiming themselves to be the descendants of No Wave (but who've since shown their true colors as "hipster house" fashion whores or worse), Swans have returned to school the clueless about what No Wave really meant. Tonight there was no dance beat to be found, no disco-throwback clothing, no nostalgic nods to a rose-colored retro past. Only obliteration through sound. As it was, and as it should be. And may the gods help you if you forgot your earplugs.
By the way: I forgot my earplugs. Ouch.
Fashion note: The t-shirt for sale at the merch booth that bore the motto "You Fucking People Make Me Sick" refers to the titular Swans song allegedly written in hatred of hipsters.