Swans' sprawling second act

City Paper

Initially an early 1980s NYC no-wave concern, Swans would in the interim become known for their deft malleability. As the group’s boiler-room industrial of 1983’s debut “Filth” gave way to the spooked art-rock of 1987’s “Children of God” and 1995’s “The Great Annihilator,” band leader and head growler Michael Gira became no less terrifying in his mystically foreboding Freddy Krueger way; rather, he turned subtle. In the late 1990s, Gira—who, with the exception of the gold-throated Jarboe, was the band’s sole consistent member up to that point—decided to break up the band, decamping for the gentler Angels of Light and helming Young God Records.

The unrepentantly maximalist nature of Swans’ ongoing reunion campaign is downright staggering: avalanches of fawning press, huger venues, louder shows, studio albums as crowdfunding mania, the casual sweeping of year-end best-of lists (including City Paper’s: “The Seer” was No. 2 on our 2012 year-end list, and “To Be Kind” was No. 3 on our 2014 one).

Yep: Gira and his players all of a sudden find themselves almost Sonic Youth popular, notable in a way that onetime contemporaries like DNA could never be if they opted to reform. Why? In part because the Swans’ discography was nine albums deep when they split initially. In part because 2010’s “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky” was such a driving, twisted statement of purpose reborn. But also because 2012 double-album “The Seer” somehow encapsulated everything thrilling about the band in its various incarnations: knotted, mottled drones, a love of American gothic, the courage to wander out on a high avant-garde limb, and the willingness to, figuratively speaking, stab music boxes with screwdrivers in the name of art.

While these two platters are revolving, Gira’s continuing jones for lyrical narrative becomes almost secondary to songs that grind, groan, and crash like mile-high tectonic-plate piles—compositions that can seem haphazard, but are, in actuality, impeccably arranged and rehearsed. Imagine a bar band with bristling measures of guitar feedback, piano chords, and jaw harps on a self-imposed loop, as though being paid double the usual rate to send customers packing in droves, and you’ve got a pretty good sense of what’s at play here.

Warning signs are already surfacing, though, that the band is inclined to retrace its earlier path of straying away from crippling incoherence and towards the airy and ethereal. On last year’s “To Be Kind,” Swans made a left turn, abandoning conceptual noise-rock for a strain of dusty, desiccated funk—a diversion that would have been easier to stomach had it been confined to a single disc.

Whether the furiously feted “To Be Kind” was a beneficiary of the so-called “Nebraska syndrome”—i.e. residual good will from the celebrated “The Seer”—or the beneficiary of general hipster largesse is unclear. No matter; in concert, Gira and the boys are bound to shuffle their not-inconsiderable deck of variegated dirges. Oh, and one last note, on some “The More You Know” shit: Word is that the volume at Swans’ marathon gigs is downright cataclysmic, so don’t leave those earplugs at home, you hear? 

Swans play Baltimore Soundstage on March 25.

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