By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
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By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
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Swans founder and lone constant Michael Gira objects to the suggestion that the recent activity from his legendary, long-dormant band constitutes a reunion. With the release of the irrepressibly dark and loud outfit's first full-length in 13 years and comprehensive international tour dates — featuring slots at big-name festivals like Primavera Sound in Barcelona and the upcoming All Tomorrow's Parties festival in London — the evidence contrary to his claim is pretty substantial.
"It's a resumption," he clarifies. "I'm moving forward with the work. I'm not interested in playing a lot of the old songs and trying to be nostalgic about the past."
The past consists of a 30-plus-year legacy in independent music that has always dangled off the cusp of rock 'n' roll's cutting edge. Swans began in the wake of New York City's art-damaged response to punk that thrived in the late '70s and early '80s. For some, the musical "deconstruction" undertaken by the Ramones and Richard Hell at hallowed downtown Manhattan punk venue CBGB wasn't being pushed far enough. Plus, artists like Blondie and Elvis Costello dubbed as new wave, punk's tidy and more commercially viable counterpart, weren't winning points with the stodgy art house contingent either.
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This challenging new musical alternative, dubbed No Wave, was brewed in Lower East Side dives but had significant overlap with the high-minded world of avant-garde music — minimalist composer La Monte Young was a major influence, and experimental artists Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham were both affiliates — and spawned a wave of theory-motivated, dissonant new rock that proved to be a genre of music unto itself.
This scene included punk-funk noisemakers James Chance and the Contortions, dirge-rock band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (fronted by Lydia Lunch), Arto Lindsay's guitar-noise trio DNA, as well as Swans and perennial indie-rock standards Sonic Youth.
Gira recalls the latter two bands — both recent NYC transplants at the time — being blandly identified initially by the music press as "noise," much to his chagrin. "These genres seem kind of cartoonish to me," he says. "Swans doesn't really sound like anyone. And no one sounds like Swans."
Though a bold claim, Gira has an incredible catalog of work to offer as evidence. Early Swans provided the initial blueprint: buzzing, droning guitars; primordial, anciently pounding percussion; and the unholy caterwauling of the group's seemingly tortured frontman/protagonist.
From this foundation, the band gradually incorporated a broader sonic palette that draws from acoustic singer/songwriter folk and film scoring. Gira describes the transition from "heavy to more cinematic," citing the 1987 full-length Children of God as an example of the group's increasingly elaborate sound and compositions. Vocalist/keyboardist Jarboe developed as a tender, melodic foil to the caustic, extreme Gira.
In the course of Swans' constant construction and endless layering, in which all moods and influences lead back to signature, visceral power, Gira began to question the effectiveness of the group's key tropes (that is, throbbing compositions and merciless volume). "The reliance on 'big' sounds and volume was becoming a crutch... and a cliché," Gira told Pitchfork Media in 2005.
Though gradually incorporating modes other than heavy into the Swans milieu, Gira admitted that he had always been obsessed with "an overwhelming sonic rush that could just erase your body." That is, until 1997, when raw power had finally lost its allure. Simply put, Gira says he "was fed up with [Swans] completely and wanted to move on."
Angels of Light was the escape plan. The oft-sprawling ensemble featured a wide array of players and traded the density of heavy guitars and pounding drums for equally thick orchestral arrangements. For more than a decade, Gira conducted this experiment in delicate intensity, with no sight of the primal rage of Swans in the horizon.
Along the way, Gira's endeavors further diversified with his Young God label. Though the label is winding down in terms of releasing other artists — it will soon be reduced to a vehicle for Swans and occasional other projects that capture his attention — the Young God back catalog reflects the '60s-influenced folk rock that constituted what media in the mid-2000s described as "New Weird America." Young God released early records from singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart — whom Gira describes as a "firecracker" — as well as material from indie-jam band Akron/Family, which has also doubled as Gira's Angels of Light backing band.
As Angels was Gira's response to his own work up until that point, the pendulum has since swung, quite naturally, in the other direction. "I started Swans again because I was getting a little frustrated and bored with Angels of Light," he says. "It seemed like with so many years off, it would provide something that was more challenging."
Evidently, the frontman — and the still-expanding fan base cultivated in Swans' absence — is up for the challenge. Gira reports that "the audiences are much larger than Swans ever had" and that the resumption has "proved to be very invigorating," and he repeats his self-delighted prognosis that "the music is moving forward. It sounds like Swans. But it doesn't harken back."
While much of Swans' 2010 full-length, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, reflects the expansive compositions of later Swans and Angels of Light, it also marks a distinct return to pronounced heaviness and high decibel levels.
"I wanted to experience an intense physical and spiritual onslaught that is involved with the kinds of sounds [Swans] make before it becomes impossible for me to do so," Gira explains. "I can't imagine doing that kind of thing when I'm 65."
When asked how that onslaught translates to the wide-open fairgrounds and towering stages of the international festival circuit, Gira maintains his enthusiasm for the present era. "It's really working out. I think [Swans] lends itself to large space. The music is very expansive and physical.
"Kind of Wagnerian," he adds with a laugh.
He refers to 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner, who developed an emotionally charged school of opera called Gesamtkunstwerk, or, literally, "music-drama." The concept was that an opera's score should impart an epic, immediate experience for the viewer, a technique Gira has not finished exploring.
Wednesday's performance at Respectable Street will largely feature music from My Father... and yet-to-be released material. "The set is really a workout. It's an ordeal. But an ecstatic one in the end," Gira says. Much of the new material in the two-and-a-half-hour performance features what he describes as "long, long instrumental sections that undulate and change" and that ultimately "empty out into something really quiet and acoustic. There are a lot of dynamics developing."
Among the new, still developing material is what Gira describes as "one stretched piece of sound," a 35-minute opus that holds the distinction of being the longest Swans song ever.
"I don't know what format to release it in," Gira says of the total body of work. "It's two and a half hours of music." He continues to explain that he may toy with combinations of physical and digital. "Maybe I won't even look at it as an album but a burgeoning collection of music."
This freedom to experiment with form and format is endowed by Gira's own pedigree rooted in a music career unconcerned with trends and focused more on sustained and vigorous forward motion.
"I don't feel constrained by commercial factors," he says, "because I have my own label, and the music industry is so fucked anyway. I just do what I want."