Show review: Swans at Paradise Rock Club – 10/11

The second coming of Michael Gira’s mighty Swans is on tour in support of this year’s gargantuan double album The Seer, bringing a pummeling and mild-altering two-and-a-half hour show to the Paradise on Thursday night. Gypsy-folk duo A Hawk and Hacksaw opened.

Much as mastermind Michael Gira tries to fight it, Swans are a band with a reputation. Legend has it that shows in the 80s were hotter than a sweat lodge and loud enough to induce physical sickness. Felt like you couldn’t take it? Too bad, Gira had the doors locked. He might have even leaped into the crowd to assault you if you were headbanging a little too enthusiastically. Stories of such cartoonishly evil live performances are largely the production of exaggerations and outright falsehoods, but that doesn’t mean that Swans weren’t capable of putting on an almost unbearably intense show. A 13 year hiatus has not diminished that capability in the slightest.

Gira has called The Seer the culmination of his 30 years in music. He’s covered a great deal of ground in that time, from industrial noise terror to shimmering neofolk and crescendo-driven post-rock. Shades of all of that make their way into The Seer and the band’s current live set. The pounding repetitious rhythms of early Swans, the adventurous structured chaos climaxes of Soundtracks for the Blind and occasional indulgence in quiet, gorgeous textures are at the core of these new songs. In a live setting they are given even more room to stretch and sprawl, practically ceasing to exist as songs and expanding into 10, 20 or 30-minute pieces of entrancing, ferocious beauty.

Openers A Hawk and a Hacksaw provided a lovely opening set which ran contrary but strangely complementary to the overwhelming bombast of their hosts. Members Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost employed violin, accordion and dulcimer in their Balkan and Eastern European-indebted and largely instrumental songs. The duo’s proficiency on traditional and atypical (for the Paradise stage at least) instruments was impressive, and their songs were laden with infectious rhythms and melodies. They performed a longer-than-usual 45-minute opening set, and it didn’t feel half that length. Perhaps a venture into the quaint and charming was precisely what we needed before a marathon Swans performance.

Enforcing once more that he’s no slave to the past, Gira opened the set with the unrecorded new song “To Be Kind.” The band sculpted an eerie ambient soundscape for several minutes as Gira repeatedly sang the title lyric. “There are millions and millions of stars in your eyes,” he chanted, before the piece shifted abruptly into a noisy stop-start vamp of furiously strummed guitars and shimmering cymbals. It was the first of three new songs in the set, joined by three cuts from The Seer and a single slice of vintage Swans: a monstrous take on “Coward.” The setlist comes as no surprise – it’s the same one they’ve played every night of the tour, and which Gira shared with fans via the Internet months ago. This isn’t the kind of show where one expects surprise classic songs or yells requests. It’s a show in which the audience submits itself to the will of the band and simply holds on for the ride.

If there’s one aspect of the Swans myth that’s indisputable, it’s that yes, they do play some very extremely loud shows. Last year’s gig at the Royale was a few notches above polite, but it was nothing compared to the Paradise on Thursday. In a small room like that, Swans were six men conjuring the most sound I’ve ever heard a group of humans produce. The roaring in my ears didn’t quiet down for a day and a half. And I was wearing earplugs (mostly). The massive volume levels reached at the very peak of these songs are not about punishing or torturing an audience though. Losing yourself in the sheer, cathartic physicality of all that sound is at the core of what Swans have always been about. In spite of a reputation for gloom and doom, Gira has always maintained that joy is the ultimate goal in what he does. For himself, his band and his audience, it’s a goal he surely achieved Thursday night.

Exhausted and soaked in sweat at the end of the show, all six members lined up to wave goodbye to the crowd with a collective look of triumph on their faces. Gira may be the mastermind, but his cohorts provide invaluable support. Drummer Phil Puleo, auxiliary percussionist Thor Harris and bassist Chris Pravdica form the pummeling, relentless core of each song. Christoph Hahn’s steel guitar alternately sings and screams. Veteran guitarist Norman Westberg casts sheets of crushing, distorted guitar noise from his weathered Telecaster. They’re a tight, focused band adept at blending disciplined grooves and chaotic noise in just the right ways. Gira serves as not only a frontman, but a conductor, waving his arms and mouthing commands to direct the course of the sound. At points during the show he looked downright angry with Puleo and Pravdica, but chalk it up to perfectionism. There is a certain science to what Swans do, and he wants it executed perfectly.

Gira himself is an incredibly physical performer. He leaps across the stage, attacks his guitar more than he strums it, howls as if conjuring a demon and generally operates with a manic intensity that’s kind of unsettling to watch. It’s clear that he pours himself into this music, and that he expects the same from the band. The marathon length songs, particularly “The Seer” and “The Apostate,” which clocked in at upwards of a half-hour each, were exhausting to watch and ostensibly brutal to participate in. The former exceeded even its massive 32-minute album length, pounding the audience into submission with huge hypnotic grooves. Getting lost in its torrents of pure physical sound wasn’t difficult though, and by the end the length felt wholly irrelevant. “Coward,” the lone 80s holdover, was the shortest song of the set, but still one of the most intense. “I’m a coward / stick your knife in me,” the lyrics go, almost playfully sung-spoken over a sparse industrial lurch. It was classic Swans, straight out of those grainy videos of scary looking shows on the Greed/Holy Money tour. And it was glorious.

Set-closer “The Apostate” ended with Gira on his knees in the center of the stage, utterly drenched in sweat and howling “WE ARE BLESSED” at the top of his lungs. And with that, nearly 150 minutes of the most viscerally intense live performance I’ve ever witnessed drew to a close. Perhaps the relatively tiny confines of the Paradise had something to do with it, but this set blew last year’s already impressive Royale show out of the water. The band was tighter, louder, scarier and gave themselves over to their music in a way few of their contemporaries do. Gira’s goal is transcendence through sound, and that’s precisely what Swans pull off. When the show ended, I stumbled out onto the street with my ears ringing and my head feeling rearranged, euphoric and firmly convinced this was one of the greatest shows I’d ever seen.

A Hawk and a Hacksaw: