“Whoa, Fuck”: Swans

Ever since I was a teen (actually, a little bit less), attending concerts has been my only real “hobby.” During my highschool years my mom would drop me off at the doorstep of the 9:30 Club or the Black Cat several nights a week, where I would wait on the sidewalk for hours so that I could be front row for whichever hero I had access to that night. By the time I was 18 I had seen Sonic Youth 6 times, kissed Kim Deal, and been onstage with Iggy Pop… twice. I had almost literally seen it all. I’m now a music journalist who continues going to upwards of 75 shows per years, except now it’s all free of charge. At this point it has all gotten a little blurry, a little less exciting: seeing indie rock, alt country, and synth pop bands every night that are legitimately good, but that honestly are somewhat interchangeable and that are definitely not going to change the course of music history. Yes, there are exceptions that make me as giddy as I was when I was 14, yet it’s pretty rare that I have a “Whoa, Fuck” moment. This was my “Whoa, Fuck,” moment of 2010.

On September 28 the 140-year-old Trocadero Theatre housed sounds that likely won’t be accessible to the masses for another 140 years. Legendary NYC avant art rockers Swans played their first show in 13 years. The venue was filled with freaks of all ages and walks of life: punks, goths, metalheads, queers, the people who are yet to embrace a culturally “valuable” identity, the people whose lives resemble a series of scars but are yet to be broken. Swans’ discography is as fluid and varied as their fans, but the one thing that remained constant is that it was always something that the mainstream wouldn’t fucking get. Those several hundred in attendance may have embraced different subculture identities and may have had their closets and record collections stocked differently, but the one thing they had in common was that they remained aliens, much like the band onstage. If this all sounds a bit lofty and pretentious, it’s because it is.

Swans, alongside Sonic Youth (their more fortunate musical siblings), rose from the ashes of NYC’s No Wave movement. Building on the noisiness of art rock, they added the Post Punk of Joy Division and what can only be described as slow-motion Heavy Metal and melded it with an audible (in addition to lyrical) manifestation of Genet and the Marquis de Sade for their aesthetic, still largely unlistenable and indefinable to the majority of Earth. They later gained a reputation for shows with a (sometimes literally) vomit-inducing volume. Later, in order to shed the band of any particular reputation, band leader and sole constant member Michael Gira, toyed with brilliantly bastardized takes on Folk, Blues, Ambient, and Industrial. Earlier this year Swans released My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, which your humble narrator has described as “the scariest fucking folk music you will ever hear” and an attempt at “skullfucking American country and blues.”

The audience at the Trocadero Theatre that night lacked a consensus not only on what Swans’ music was, but how it was to be reacted to. Some banged their heads, some overdramatically swayed to the hypnotic feedback, and some motionlessly stared upon them as a piece of performance art which they wished not to disturb.

The notion of considering Swans’ set as a “performance,” would probably be insulting to the band. Gira is one of music’s greatest anti-performers: it was a song-and-a-half into the set before he turned to face the audience. Toward the end of the night, when he could no longer avoid acknowledging the praise that was almost half as deafening as his music, he spit, in his William-Burroughs diction “Don’t try to love me or else you’ll have to suck my cock,” before offering a gruffly quirky apology (this anti-hero is just as well conceptualized as Genet and possibly more so than Charles Manson).

What the band played seemed to matter less to the audience than simply that they were playing. Tracks from their latest, like “My Birth” and “Eden Prison” were accompanied, by nonsensical selections from their catalogue (it’s not like they had “hits” after all). There seemed to be little reasoning or motivation behind these particular choices, but that was the beauty of it. While they’re just about the least likely band in the world to pander to their audience, even if they wanted to, I’m not sure it would be possible. The electro-tribal “I Crawled” sounds more authentically “Gothic” than anything to be produced since and “Sex, God, Sex” still sounds like a hymn from the edge of the Apocalypse. However, the night’s scariest, and therefore best, moment was likely 1987’s “Beautiful Child.” The song seems to drone on forever, yet it gives you the distinct feeling that once it’s over, it’s all over.

Swans are not a band to be “enjoyed” in the traditional sense. Like the Marquis de Sade, they are here to break down all that we know of their medium and prophesize our approaching demise. Hearing Gira and his horrifically beautiful Swans in concert may be the closest one can reach to hearing the world’s end. – Izzy Cihak