Swans are constantly referenced as progenitors of post-rock, drone, industrial, post-punk, et al. Michael Gira is the group’s frontman and bandleader. Swans is Michael Gira, Michael Gira is Swans. He is the group’s auteur. If you were to listen to their blunt and ugly debut “Filth” (1983, Neutral) alongside their most recent release “To Be Kind”, you will be startled at their newly expanded musicality, instrumentation and the scope of the songs. The Swans of today, doesn’t resemble its origins exactly, but is an extension and logical progression of the groundwork laid in the ‘80’s. The defining feature of their music has always been repetition and extremity. But now, they aim at an aliveness rather than nothingness, transcendence over decay and what feels like an overwhelming and unshakable truth, rather than simply the glee of punishing their audience.
The musicianship is controlled and disciplined, so much so that a musical idea might be played over and over again with no real change (other than an escalation in dynamics) for upwards of 20 minutes. This is where the tension comes across both on record and especially during the live show. Because so much of the experience of seeing them live is about enduring the ugliness of the present moment and accepting delayed gratification, when the songs actually arrive at a new musical idea, it’s like rapture. A musical approximation of the mantra: The way out is through.
This tension also comes from the attitude of the band who are so locked into the now that any interruption of their flow might provoke antagonism. At Bowery Ballroom during “The Apostate”, Gira, distracted by the flash of an iPhone in the front row, yelled to the photographer, never breaking from playing and kicked at the camera. I bet he gave her a great shot. At the previous show I attended, there was also an indiscernible confrontation between band and audience member in the front row. The intensity in the room when they play is palpable and contagious. This comes across on record too and colors any and all experience while listening.