To call Michael Gira a lead singer, a frontman or a bandleader isn’t enough – the man’s a remarkable conductor. On Thursday night at the Rex Theatre, Gira conducted his band members, mouthing out measures midway through a song, yelling instructions to lap-steel guitarist Christoph Hahn and motioning to drummer Phil Puleo. He also conducted the sound engineer, barking, “I didn’t want a fucking psychedelic mic,” during “Just A Little Boy.” But most notably, Gira conducted the audience.
When light pushing turned into a quickly growing moshpit partway through a new song, “Don’t Go,” Gira crouched down just in front of the group, shook his head, slashing a hand across his neck, and mouthed, “No moshing.” When the pushing only intensified, Gira took matters into his own hands, by spitting three times into the group. No more mosh pits were attempted that night.
Though spitting into the audience may evoke memories of the abusive early Swans shows where hair-pulling and assaulting headbangers were the norm, the revived iteration of Swans emits a far more joyful intensity. The band smiled much more than they frowned, with Gira and Hahn even acknowledging fans during their pummeling 20-minute no-wave suites.
The band performed six “songs” (the word seems inadequate) over a period of two hours – a few from this year’s sprawling To Be Kind, “Apostate” from The Seer and a handful of new tracks. All three of the unreleased songs (“Frankie M,” “Don’t Go,” “Black Hole Man”) were received as warmly as the recent album cuts and would have felt right at home on any post-2010 Swans release.
“Black Hole Man” emerged as the standout of the new tracks – not for its superior quality, but for its downright accessibility. To Be Kind featured some of the most hook-laden and compact recent Swans songs in “Oxygen” and “A Little God In My Hands,” and “Black Hole Man” takes this trend a step further with a sparse drum-and-bass groove carrying more than half of the 10-minute song. When the layered wall of noise surfaces around the midpoint, it doesn’t overwhelm or dominate the groove, but bolsters it throughout the song. Quite simply, it’s the closest thing to a rock tune these guys have done.
For the more traditional songs (i.e. mammoth runtimes, sensations of apocalyptic chaos, utter exhaustion) such as “Apostate” and “Bring The Sun,” Gira and company went to great lengths to capture the swift movement between sections and the fine details within the noise. A Swans show might cut three years of hearing off your life – earplugs were provided at the door – but Gira’s jingle bells, Thor Harris’s violin and trombone all came through in the mix. Whether you credit it to the Rex Theatre’s excellent acoustics or Gira’s acute attention to detail, the live show captured many of the essential subtler moments that a lesser band might have swept under the rug.
Given the challenging task of setting the mood for one of the most draining shows on the planet, Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu responded with a single grating 20 minute song. The performance could have instead been labeled as a Stewart DJ set, since the full band was nowhere to be found.
He sat alone behind a small table onstage which was covered with a thousand wires, cables, knobs and buttons. The song was propelled by a consistently shrill tone, but eventually built up a thick wall of noise with throbbing bass swells. All in all, it was mostly unsettling and discomforting – so an ideal warm-up for Swans.
-- Shawn Cooke