October 18, 2012 | 11:44am
The show was an epic experience in the dynamics of artful noise, sending a trickle of concert goers out the door, hands over ears, faces scrunched, while others crept closer to the stage like moths to a flame. One long-haired guy laid his head on a monitor
as the six-piece rose their volume to the maximum level. Far from the intricate dynamics of the band's recorded work, live Swans are a beast of a band on a quest for loud.
But before the six-member group began exploring the limits of its equipment, a duo on violin, accordion, and kick drum called A Hawk and a Hacksaw warmed up the stage nicely. The duo from New Mexico happens to include Jeremy Barnes, who once played drums in Neutral Milk Hotel, and Heather Trost, on violin and occasional vocals. Their perky, sometimes frenetic music brings to mind the old world of gypsies but also the experimental.
Toward the end of their occasionally entrancing set, Trost pulled out what appeared to be the skeletal remains of violin with a brass horn stuck into it. With one hand she pulled on a dangling string while fingering the instrument's neck creating a sound like the melodic creaking of an old door while Barnes offered an entrancing melody on accordion. The duo provided an interesting contrast to what was to come: A small bright sound rooted in something before Western modernization.
Swans came on stage not long after A Hawk and a Hacksaw's 30-45 minute set. Rumbling up from silence via Christoph Hahn's howling lap steel and Thor Harris bowing something in his arsenal of percussion, creating a sound like a distant wind, the rest of the band stood by patiently. Frontman and conductor Michael Gira raised his palm at Hahn to hold back on the swell of noise. This was the start of a new piece called "To Be Kind." Gira had the lyrics laminated on a stand in front of him.
This marked the band's quietest moment on stage as the rest of the group would jump in after about 10 minutes, to offer one wave after another of sound that poured forth to rattle skin and teeth. The bursts of sound came from the ferocious pummeling of guitars and percussion like giant enveloping waves. It mesmerized. I believe Gira sang a bit, but the awesome quality of this noise seemed to overtake any memory of his vocals.
Gira seemed to be happiest in a wash of noise. He closed his eyes and slowly waved his hands as if dipping them in an imaginary pool of water. Occasionally, he would wrestle control of the music from others in the band. During one new song, he mouthed, "No," at bassist Chris Pravdica, who dripped sweat and nodded wide-eyed, lost in the din as his fingers rumbled the bass. "Wait for me!" Gira ordered, even pausing his guitar strokes to correct Pravdica and give him the evil eye.
Pravdica was not the only one who got stern looks from Gira during the near two-hour exploration of instruments. At one point Gira turned to longtime Swans guitarist Norman Westberg and mouthed "C'mon, play!" He also waved his arms at Phil Puleo in search of that right tempo by waving his arms. Not even members of the audience were spared Gira's control. During one ecstatic moment of Gira bending over in ecstasy, one fellow tried to get a picture. Gira looked him in the eyes and told him, "Don't do that... Thank you."
Gira is a man clearly on a quest for something. By the two boldly scribbled words at the bottom of the final laminated lyric sheet of the night (Bliss! Bliss!) it seems it cannot be found in the physical world, but this group of six guys certainly opened up something in the sonic realm with their guitars and a barrage of percussion, that included dulcimer and orchestra bells as well as some beat up drums and cymbals and more than one lost and broken drumstick that blew apart in the pummeling assault.
Personal Bias: I like to search for phantasmal melodies in noise.
Crowd: black shirts, asymmetrical haircuts, and a baby boomer or two.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter at indieethos.