Twenty years ago I discovered the New York No Wave scene and spent months trying to convince myself that I was hip enough to enjoy Suicide and Swans. Ultimately I failed. As someone whose always found Sonic Youth to be too noisy, wading into the early Swans catalog was a cocktail of folly and hubris. While I may have sold my CDs nearly as quickly as I bought them, I did develop an appreciation of the band and its place in history. I also learned that every Swans release has the potential for containing a conscious-altering composition. As such, I've made a point to comb through each of the three albums that the reconstituted Swans have released, finding that the band's most recent album, Seer (Young Gods, 2012), is rife with interesting passages both obscene and gentle. With this in mind, and bolstered by the long shadow cast by the seminal band, I packed my camera and headed out the door for The Beaumont Club.
When I arrived, I took my place in a queue of 50 patrons slowing filing into the club. It was just before 8:00 (the scheduled start time), leaving me to wonder if the show was running behind schedule, or if this was the tail end of a much longer line that began entering the club an hour ago. The answer was clear when I stepped into the largely empty club and made my way toward the front of the stage.
While I waited impatiently for the opening act to begin, the young audience around me talked excitedly about the show as if Christmas had finally arrived. That enthusiasm is why bands play shows, and why I continue to cover them. It's positively infectious. When Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart walked onto the stage at 8:30, the audience allowed their pent up anticipation to erupt in cheers, and I gathered my camera.
To be honest, I've never really understood Xiu Xiu. Currently the band is the solo endeavour of Jamie Stewart, the only mainstay of the ten-year-running project. For most of its life, the act has been a duo, but its lineup has frequently swelled further. There have been moments when the band has flirted with fractured pop, but for this tour, any semblance of popular musical elements have been cast aside, and replaced with an obscenely loud cacophony of electronics, distortion, and histrionic vocals.
During the band's ample 40-minute set, Stewart focused on one instrument per composition, picking up an electric autoharp, synthesizer, or electric guitar as needed. Each instrument had the same purpose: to add a layer of jarring noise over the deep oscillating hum of feedback that Stewart started at the beginning of his set, and didn't shut off until long after the final number had ended. When those instruments had become too expected, Stewart used a slingshot to shoot unidentifiable pellets at a frying pan across the stage, sending the sharp ping echoing through the club's sound system, or he'd punch into the range of a heavily distorted theremin that would squeal with noise as if it had been injured. Each of these events startled the audience enough to illicit physical jumps and winces. These sounds were often in competition with vocals that combined the intense warble of Antony Johnson with the self-aware theatrics of Marc Almond. There were moments when Stewart settled to a spoken monologue, delivering disturbing narratives like "If you were spanking someone and a snake started to crawl out of their anus would you just keep spanking them until the snake was unconscious?" While I'm not familiar enough with the band's catalogue to provide the set list, I did (barely) recognize a cover of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" – a track that the band released on it's 2003 album A Promise (5 Rue Christine). Other than that, the set list was a mystery to me, and truthfully, I couldn't have been happier when it ended.
It was a quick turnaround as Stewart removed a Radio Shack-worth of electronics from the stage, revealing that the ramshackle stacks of instruments at the back of the stage were actually purposely placed for the headliner. As I readied my camera for what I was alerted may be a two-and-a-half hour set, a nearby patron warned me that the band didn't like cameras, adding "they spit on them" to her caution. This wasn't something that I had considered – particularly since the band's tour management had provided me with my photo credentials. Still, I took the warning to heart, and when frontman Michael Gira walked onto the stage to tune his guitar, I lowered my long lens as to keep it out of sight.
There are long books that still provide only cursory overviews of the Swans' career, so I won't attempt to outdo them in a quick show account. The short version is that the band's early no wave beginnings roughed into proto-industrial noise, smoothed out to a nearly atmospheric goth sound for a major label, and then returned to thunderous post-rock noise for material released on its own Young Gods label. In the band's 30-year career, members have come and gone, the band has broken up and reunited, and there have been side projects. Through it all, two constant truths have remained: first, frontman Michael Gira is the Swans regardless of the supporting cast, and second, the band has always been a brutal force when performing live regardless of its current album's tone. With that, the stage was set.
Gira joined his band at 9:30 amidst a droning lap guitar line provided by long-time cohort, the grizzled Christoph Hahn. Multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris simultaneously bowed two bars of a glockenspiel or vibraphone producing a ringing, scraping hum. Later, mainstay guitarist Norman Westberg was joined by bassist Chris Pravdica and drummer Phil Pueleo. The sextet then found a rhythm that it beat savagely for the next fifteen minutes. I'm told the song was "To Be Kind" – one of several new songs the band is working through on this tour. In this song, and nearly all of the band's material, the ensemble insists that anything worth doing, is worth overdoing. Heavy percussion and synchronised instruments frequently hit, reset, and hit again repeating the pattern for minutes at a time, often in concert with the jumps and exaggerated stomps of Gira.
While the band clung to this formula throughout the night, each sprawling composition (several topping twenty minutes) slipped in its own moments of nuance. This was most often provided by Gira's vocal variations as he shifted from arresting screams to elongated crooning that recalled Dead Can Dance's Brendan Perry. However, the effects of Harris's versatility should not be understated. During the set he played various drums, vibraphone, dulcimer, violin, clarinet, and probably other instruments that I missed when I was forced to step away from my post at the edge of the stage.
You see, experiencing the Swans was an endurance test. The club was hot, organ-rattling loud, the songs were brutal and punishing, and the set lasted for over two hours. At some point the earplugs that I jammed deep into my inner ear began to effect my equilibrium, forcing me to retreat to the rear of the club for respite. While I marvelled at the uncharacteristically good sound in the club, I noted that the sparse room I entered into was now filled with several hundred fans. I counted dozens of familiar faces, along with a who's who of the Kansas City music scene past and present, including members from such disparate acts as Hammerlord, Season to Risk, and Hospital Ships. Everyone was there to pay homage to these sonic pioneers.
The band ended the night with the 20-minute plus "Apostle" (also the closing track from Seer). There were a few weak calls for an encore, but most of the audience were beaten, weary, and sated. If it's true that what does not kill us only makes us stronger, then even those like myself, who came to the see the Swans out of curiosity more than fanaticism, will be better for seeing the band. Stronger or not, I'm still not going to revisit those early Swans records – I've come to accept my limitiations.