They say that it’s better to burn out than fade away. But maybe it’s also okay to take a break, to temporarily snuff the ember on the incense stick of your rock-and-roll career, so you can burn out at a later and, hopefully, more financially lucrative time. Or maybe that adage just needs to be retired entirely, because, lately, rock bands have gotten a lot better at getting back together.
Take Swans, for example. When the violent and moody New York-based noise rock group called it quits during the late ’90s, a golden-years get-together seemed like an unthinkably horrible idea. During the band’s mid-1980s prime, singer and ringleader Michael Gira was a physically imposing presence — bare-chested, bellowing into the microphone, throwing his body against the stage monitors. Gira is now nearly 60, and that kind of behavior would probably land him in the hospital.
But muscle and bone mass aside, Swans never had much to do with youth. It was about endurance. And Swans still have plenty of that. On Friday night at the Black Cat, the band’s set ran for 21 / 2 hours.
Swans’ music, particularly their latest album and second post-reunion effort, “The Seer,” possesses a theatricality that lends itself well to this long-form delivery. The songs make heavy use of dynamics, slowly building from near-silence to full blast and making sharp left turns from beauty to violent catharsis. Over the years, neoclassical-leaning rock groups such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sunn O))) have adapted certain aspects of Gira’s shtick, mainly the use of extended, bludgeoning repetition to conjure an apocalyptic sentiment. On “The Seer,” Swans get a return on their investment, swiping strains of plaintive melody and a bottomless low end from their heavier progeny. And, like those groups, they aren’t afraid to carry on at length.
But even as the album’s title track stretched toward the 30-minute mark, the crowd never thinned. By occupying large swaths of time, Swans’ performance took on the character of an eerie but engaging religious ritual, rather than a rock concert.
And to further twist the knife, endurance-wise, Swans turned off the club’s air conditioning before taking the stage. As the songs carried on and grew in intensity, so did the heat and stink of the crowded room. “Are you hot?” asked Gira during the set’s final stretch. “You can take off your clothes. It would be so much better if you would.”
Leitko is a freelance writer.