Apr 2024 01

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Continuing their spate of European shows, Michael Gira and his flock of Swans returned to North America to perpetuate the sonic abuse and beauty characteristic of their careers. Opening each night was former Swan Norman Westberg; with a resume like few others, his time with the band starting with the ever-iconic Filth, the only question one might have is why Westberg isn’t playing with the band. However, after almost four decades of collaboration, perhaps a change of pace is both a healthy and a necessary choice.

Making liberal use of loop, reverb, and delay pedals, Westberg stacked phrases into a fittingly droning wall of sound sculpted up and down as textures were added and then subsequently subtracted. Alternating between legato notes and cacophonous palm mutes, he then reached to his waist-high table smothered in pedals and began first modulating, then distorting the signal. In this respect, it’s more akin to modular synth manipulations or DJing than traditional guitar playing, and betrays why he was so instrumental to the band for so many years; his ability to create all-encompassing, entrancing waves of sound is prodigious.
When Gira and the entourage swan onto the stage, Gira’s graven as a modern Moses, the rest of the band looking both grim and focused in equal measure. Gira, seated with his trusty Guild behind him, begins to strum an open chord with his thumb, the band beginning with “The Beggar.” The performance was less a setlist and more a Zen transformation – Gira strums, incants, and bellows, and the band listens, then progressively layers themselves on top of one another. Two slide guitars, two basses, two percussion setups, and various keys and sampling devices build into all-consuming drones that drift into material from leaving meaning… and then more of The Beggar. Gira conducts the five other musicians, hands raised and quivering like some kind of baritone demagogue, signaling transitions, and ends to the elongated sonic odyssey of each song. What was most impressive was the interpersonal dynamics between each of the musicians – the stares and energy bristled and crackled with the sputter of electrons entering new valences, the envelope of each song a quasi-improvisational creation actively shaped with intuitive understanding; the other half of the electron exchange, the audience, was wholly enraptured throughout the monster two-and-a-half hour set, some throbbing to the beat, others more reverently transfixed as the maelstrom of sound eventually hums into the stillness of the night.
It’s hard not to have lusted after some older material, especially given the vastness of the band’s back catalog, but Gira’s always been vocally against this kind of unchecked nostalgia. One wonders how the selections from The Beggar were made – perhaps the ones that offered the richest layers for the troupe assembled? There’s admittedly something of a sense disappointment for not having heard “The Parasite” or “Paradise is Mine” given their position as the album opener and first single respectively, but as anyone who’s read anything about Gira knows, the audience at a Swans show is there to listen, as if in a conversation with a friend; it’s not a question of being gratified or getting what you want, but as Gira might say, it’s more about getting what you deserve.
As if to illustrate this principle, this writer went to retrieve a copy of Children of God from his car to be signed by Gira after the show, thinking it risky to bring it at the start of the night. Despite the hundred-odd patrons still in line at the merch table, waiting to greet their no longer quite so Young God, the goons refused re-entry, despite the absence of any such warning as to the consequences of exiting the venue. Christopher Pravdica and Kristof Hahn appeared out front shortly thereafter to enjoy a well-earned smoke, and despite the pleasure of making their acquaintance and thanking them for the experience (Hahn politely bemoans some difficulties with his amp during the set), the stinging absence of a chance to meet Gira like some kind of modern Sinai-summiting dulled the luster of this rarity.
Vainglorious gratification, denied and exterminated – one hopes Gira would be proud of this excruciating parable.


Article by Colin Andrew MacDougall (VexationsandtheVile)
Photography by Eric Landry


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