Live: Swans' Piercing Assault on Respectable Street, September 14


With Sir Richard Bishop and Axe & the Oak

Respectable Street, West Palm Beach

September 14, 2011

View a slideshow from the concert here

Last night, Swans, as led by frontman Michael Gira, lived up to every last bit of hype concerning volume, textural intensity and the laboriousness of their two-plus hour live show. 

Axe and the Oak opened with the evening's most traditional rock set. This dark-and-epic power trio injects brooding Americana twang into a tension-and-release gloomy (almost theatrically so, particularly when it comes to lead singer Sander Willig's sonorously booming vocals) post-punk format, and their sound at Respectable was the clearest we've ever heard it. Our lone complaint would be the lack of any new material -- this band is too good to only have six to ten songs (rough estimate on our part, who knows what's in the vault). We will give points, however, for clever reworkings of standards like "Jack the Ripper" and "Dark Star," that toyed with the songs' structures enough -- different tempos and vocal patterns most notably -- to almost transform them completely.

Sir Richard Bishop was up next, and his set really got us thinking about how compositionally strong the lineup was. More than anything, every act performing relied heavily on tone, either derived by or in tandem with guitar. While Axe and the Oak explored a distinctly American idiom, Bishop turned his sights to the Far East with a bludgeoning dense, short set of intricately unfolding electric guitar ragas. In our interview with him before the show, he said he'd be performing material from his Egyptian-guitar-influenced full-length The Freak of Araby, as well as material from his Sun City Girls ensemble, and some improvised pieces. None of his set sounded particularly familiar to our ears but a track list I.D. seemed trivial as we stood, entranced, as the guitarist moved both hands every which way around his instrument with blinding speed and remarkable precision.

Early in the set, Bishop broke into an extended surreal-and-crass spoken word-poem-story bit. You can see part of it here.

Michael Gira and his Swans are ridiculous, intense, and ridiculously intense. They began with a palette-cleansing noise drone that choked the room with ominousness. It seemed to go on a little longer than intended as Gira paced on and off the stage, seemingly arrested by some sort of technical difficulty.

But once whatever wrinkle was ironed out, Swans dove head first into one of the most relentless sets this writer has ever seen. Harsh noise, various iterations of metal, and other extreme genres hit the listener in their most tender extremities with speedy, sharp swipes. Swans undertakes an entirely more complete corporeal sound experience in which seemingly every single riff is ripe for endless, vibe-and-improv structured repetition, and each formal "song" is bridged with a solid sonic wall both singular in it's physical power, but manifold in the incredibly deep textures, shades, and hues that still managed to ring out above the cacophony. Intros, outros and interludes made up the bulk of this affair and were offset by a handful of compositions, mostly from the group's 2010 full-length, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky.

Many of those subtle nuances came from percussionist Thor, who played a multitude of drums, a clarinet, chimes and a variety of other instruments. Gira's relationship with his band mates was a grippingly dramatic supplement to already dramatic music. The young-looking drummer and bassist both often appeared to be under high duress at the hand's of Gira's merciless conducting.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: County Grind liked Richard Vergez's Swans posters design way more than the other one.

The Crowd: We wouldn't call em norms, per se, but everyone was pretty normal.

Overheard In The Crowd: "It's not so bad down here!" a fan yelled at Sir Richard Bishop, referring to the Sunshine State. Bishop responded quickly: "Are you sure?"

Swans Set List
Intro (20 mins)

No Words/No Thoughts


The Apostate

Intro (The Seer, 20 mins) / I Crawled


Eden Prison

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Matt Preira