In thinking back to the Swans’ performance at the Music Hall of Williamsburg a couple weeks ago, I’m reminded of the title of an album by The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Bravery, Repetition and Noise. The phrase sums up the experience succinctly, as each of those three words signifies a distinct element to what happened on the Brooklyn stage during the hour or so (I wasn’t paying much attention to my watch) the band occupied it.
Anyone familiar with the band has a certain amount of expectations for what they’ll be like in the flesh. This was my first live experience with Michael Gira and company, but I knew going into it to expect a volume usually reserved for the supernatural. But while the sound was gut-rattlingly intense, it wasn’t like any of the details got lost in the mix. Chistoph Hahn’s slide work was as prominent as Chris Pravdica’s bass rumbles or Gira’s caterwauls. Indeed, it was more like being caught in the eye of the storm, the fury whirling around your periphery while you notice the details calmly from within.
The show was led off with the as-of-yet unrecorded ”To Be Kind,” wherein one witnessed the band erect it’s monolithic attack piece-by-piece. Indeed, the maelstrom created grew in stature and momentum as the night progressed. ”Mother of the World,” a track from the band’s most recent album, The Seer, followed, and its rhythmic base tumbled forth like the waves of a storm surge breaking against the shore.
But this was a controlled tempest. Throughout the night, Gira guided his band through the repertoire, a glance or a nod giving each cue. This was most evident as they ran through The Seer’s 30-minute title track, as it no doubt would have been easy to get lost amongst its repeating refrains. The highlight of the night, though, was a shorter and older cut, ”Coward,” from 1986’s Holy Money. Drummer Thor Harris pounded out the song’s big beats as Gira barked out the song’s repeated refrain of ”Put your knife in me!” Perhaps its was the familiarity of the song (much of what the Swans played was unreleased material), but the song’s industrialized cadence hit a nerve. The band finished the night with live staple ”Oxygen” and without bothering with encores. Gira thanked us for our attention, which seemed an unnecessary sentiment as it was impossible not to have given it completely.