Swans Fitzgerald's September 15, 2012
Swans will be the loudest show I will see this year, and the loudest show I will ever witness at Fitzgerald's. It wasn't until halfway through their set, sometime in the middle of the half-hour pummeling of "The Seer" that I realized I had a pair of earplugs in the car. By then the sound in the venue was less aural and more a full body massage.
Funny, most of the Swans reviews that I had read previous to this show used the word "pummel" or "pummeling" in some form. It seems like a misnomer considering the band's legacy. Using the terms "loud" seems almost sarcastic.
Swans' Saturday-night set, with the polarizing Xiu Xiu on hand as direct support, would last nearly two and a half hours, span only seven songs, and leave the audience feeling like they had just spent their evening inside a steel mill.
Led by the eloquently aggressive madman Michael Gira, Swans are touring behind The Seer, a brutish new collection of songs -- movements, really -- that signal a new invigoration in the Swans camp.
2010's "comeback" effort My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky recast the Swans brand for a new generation of listeners while also bewitching old-schoolers who were there for their seminal Holy Money and Children of God in the mid-'80s.
The show began with Gira hushing the cameras of the "kittens" and "babies" in the crowd, whose cellphones rose right when he and the rest of the Swans circa 2012 hit the stage. He would alternately call us kittens and babies throughout the night, when we could make out any words through the rumble.
Much is made about the ferocity of Swans and Gira, but those people forget about the intricacies and layers being constructed onstage outside of him.
That included the mad-scientist work of percussionist Thor Harris, sketching with sound and tones the way he does with paint and words, and collaborating with drummer Phil for rapid-fire tribal beatings. Christoph Hahn did disturbing things with a lap steel.
Elder Swans member Norman Westberg on guitar -- he's been with Gira since 1982 -- seemingly disappeared into the wash, yet added another patina of noise to Gira's heavenly mess.
The MVP of the night seemed to be bassist Chris Pravdica, who would break a string not even five minutes into the proceedings. His interplay with Gira's guitar was something fearsome.
Lest anyone think this was a night for darkness, this quote from Gira a few months ago during a Pitchfork interview puts a Swans show in perspective.
"People always consider us to be very dour and depressing, but fuck that shit. The goal is ecstasy, but I don't want to make some sort of saccharine pop music," he said.
I wasn't depressed on Saturday; if anything I was elated.
"I want to make something that's completely uncompromising: the best possible music ever made," he added.
(He also seemed to describe a kinship with none other than Bruce Springsteen later in the piece, which makes a disgusting amount of sense, to be honest.)
The closest we would get to pop music on Saturday would have been "Coward" from 1986's Holy Money.
During the rest of the set, you had to be attentive to every moving part onstage to get the full story. From my vantage point on the balcony I could watch pieces swell and retract. It was like watching a team weld together an installation piece.
Harris' bells on "Avatar," Puleo on the abbreviated "Apostate," Gira leading the band, pounding his feet and guitar into the stage like the Boss, leading the band and then forcing them to cease at just the right moment.
Gira has made plenty of allusions to reaching for the heights that Pink Floyd attained during their Ummagumma period, and the potential of amplified music to feel hymnal without the stickiness of religion.
That's what happened on Saturday night at Fitzgerald's.
Personal Bias: This show was like brain food, an art piece, which is exactly what we all need from time to time, free of pop melody and sensibility, with the occasional burst of blues. Just sounds washing over you, watching it component of the band build the skeleton of each song.
The Crowd: Black denim, black tees, black vests, black glasses, black hearts. And that one dude from that one band.
Overseen In the Crowd: A guy playing Sudoku on the floor of Fitz on his phone during Xiu Xiu's opening set. I mean, it wasn't my cup of tea but at least I was attentive for Jamie Stewart's writhing romantic horror show.
Random Notebook Dump: Swans' "You Fucking People Makes Me Sick" shirt was a big seller on Saturday. I can't wait to see them all over Montrose.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
SWANS SET LIST
To Be Kind Avatar Coward Fun The Seer Nathalie Apostate