Seeing Swans perform live is intense. The difference between hearing the band’s studio recordings and hearing them in the flesh is akin to the difference between watching violence on screen to watching violence in real life.
The emotional force of their music was majorly amplified — and not only because of the literal wall of amps that were stacked up on the stage. During climactic swells in songs, the wall of amps produced feedback that sounded like someone was shrieking in the background. The effect was a phantom wailer that only came out for the show. It perfectly suited the macabre feel of the band.
Swans are a disturbed string sextet with the lushness of a string orchestra. Michael Gira is the deranged conductor, a mountain of sound rising and falling with the cue of his hands or voice. The band devoutly followed his cues which, at times, appeared unpredictable. Many times, songs seemed to be on the brink of dissolution; but there was always some mental connection that kept the band members in sync with Gira’s great expectations.
At one point Gira turned to his drummer Phil Puleo and gave him a signal to beat harder on the cymbal, which he had already been fiercely hitting for an unbelievably long time. I didn’t think it would be possible, but Puleo actually managed to hit harder. The pain that I imagine he was going through was cringeworthy, but Gira seems to aim for an otherworldly perfection.
Not surprisingly, there were moments where Gira appeared annoyed — things weren’t sounding as he wanted them to. His meticulousness turned to frustration as he picked up a music stand that had fallen over and threw it at the ground.
But to us mere mortals, it all sounded phenomenal. The sound produced by each member of the band fit together so seamlessly. Unified and beautiful textures emerged from the roughness and strain of the individual band members. Be it Puleo’s relentless bashing at the drums or Thor Harris’ insane arpeggios, the result of all the band members’ blood, sweat, and tears was genuine beauty.