Last night, Michael Gira’s newly revived noise/no wave/goth outfit Swans delivered a show at the Black Cat that more than made up for the group’s 13-year hiatus: It was as dark and relentless as Swans’ recorded output, and it certainly lived up to the anticipation that comes from all the weirdo lore that surrounds this band.
But most of all, the show was just uncomfortable. It was a good kind of discomfort — a journey through darkness to catharsis — but it was unsettling nonetheless.
Most of that discomfort came from Gira himself. The six-piece outfit rumbled through about ten minutes of an ominous, accelerating noise to start the show — an eternity of anticipation — but before Gira uttered a single syllable, he slapped himself in the face. Repeatedly. It was a bizarre act of self-flagellation, but it fit with Gira’s lyrical themes of sin, corruption and failure.
Gira’s every word added to the unsettling feel: his bellows of “Praise God! Praise the Lord!” might have been ironic or sarcastic— or even serious; it was impossible to tell — while later, his repeated roar of “kill the child!” disintegrated into a syllable that sounded like “chay! chay! chay! chay!”
Even wordless, Gira could incite uneasiness. In a song early in Swans’ 90-minute set, he began grunting over the controlled cacophony behind him. “Unh. Unh. Unh.” It was guttural and robotic— and he took it to an extreme, grunting over and over again until it ceased to be clear whether he was in agony or ecstasy. “Unh. Unh. Unh.” Over. And. Over. And. Over.
Gira even added a layer of physical discomfort, with a request that the air conditioning be turned off in the concert hall. The stale, sweaty air wasn’t as unpleasant as it might’ve been in the heart of summer, but it did add a layer of tension in the club.
That request certainly wasn’t for sonic reasons: there’s no way that the hum of an A/C unit could have been heard over the band’s din. To the group’s credit, the sound was aggressive and abrasive without being deafeningly loud. Even still, the audience could all feel the rumbling deep in our guts; not only does Swans’ noise sound like the end of the world, it feels like it too. At one point, Gira and his band stretched their music to a tempo so slow that the anticipation of the downbeat felt like Chinese water torture.
To the uninitiated, this all may sound like a horrendously unpleasant experience. But the one thing that Gira does better than create discomfort, though, is to make all that pain somehow sound beautiful. That he can do so with such simple song structures— usually just one or two chords, repeated over and over again— is even more impressive.
Even amidst all the darkness, Gira still has a sense of humor. After one particularly dark tune, he couldn’t hide an ear-to-ear grin. “That’s a pop song,” he said. If that’s Gira’s definition of pop, only time will tell where he’ll take Swans next.
Written by Express contributor Catherine Lewis
Photos by Josh Sisk for The Washington Post