SWANS AT BROOKLYN MASONIC TEMPLE, OCTOBER 8
You turn your head, and the best-dressed man in the room is about to puke his guts out right next to you. He hovers over himself as Norman Westberg hovers over his guitar: bored, vacant, and softly angry all at once; a crudely drawn cross on the back of an amber Telecaster catches the light often when he sways. I wonder if the slunked figure is wearing one too. A hand, maybe a comforting friend’s, runs through his hair. Pause, pause, pause, HIT. The bass is ungodly loud, and so is the kick. There he goes all over his leather shoes. I sip the Asahi I’m drinking aggressively, catching myself off guard for a moment, running back to the pyramid of white and red boxes of “the only thing we’ve got.” “JESUS, JESUS, PRAISE THE LORD, PRAISE GOD.” I order two more beers, trade more yellow tickets. A fairly faithful rendition of “Sex, God, Sex” comes to a close, save Jarboe’s ghostly post-chorus trill. Her absence tonight annoys me slightly; I don’t object.
Power. Michael Gira shouts something about “Everyone get naked”; no one does, but then there’s that second where you’re like, “Fuck, what if everyone does?” It dawns on me that tonight’s Swans would not be transcendental, but lie much closer to the floor: different from what I’d hoped for, but I was willing to try. Gira scrapes into a husky reworking of “I Crawled,” from 1984’s Young God, that sounds so like their most recent LP that it takes me under. The new incarnation of the hymn is less operatic but seems to make up for it in palpable weight. On the train to the Temple I wanted “Blood Promise,” but I understand mid-set that “no, it couldn’t happen” and “thank god it wouldn’t.” There’s no room for that sort of celestial ambiance here, at least not tonight.
A wide-mouthed junkie stammers obscenities at Gira; she steps recklessly onto my feet, digs into my shoelaces. Gira then versus Gira now is a full moon waxing, despite all those things stating otherwise in his interviews past, despite how indifferent I was to the studio recordings of My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, despite how they just didn’t seem to fit into his definitive story. I focus intently on Gira. He has a habit of inaudibly speaking in tongues, away from the microphone but perfectly under the florescent whites, sweat lapping down his milky face and closed eyes, eyes that know ours are watching.
Why resurrect Swans? Was it vengeance, reaffirmation, or even something gentler? Gira had a pattern of coming off slightly bitter in the past, graciously pairing Swans with “non-rock” icons like Eno and Faust, all the while mildly laughing off criticisms in the ’90s, an epoch in which he felt Swans’ ever-broadening palette had been ignored by the music community at large. And if not that, then too quickly pegged down and (deservedly) held close to the standard of Swans’s early records, which crucially defined the industrial/noise landscape of the early ’80s, grinding tempos down to the speedy halt of aluminum breaking into water. This truly was sinking speedboat motorik, death by a fucking boulder, Gira’s own, and the man deserves his credit.
Expectations grow tiresome, and Gira historically asserts offerings in abundance. Take Swans post–Holy Money: Gira releases Children of God and allows Jarboe to thaw it out a bit—still equally gloomy, but at least his dance steps are a bit less cast in stone, and at least he even has them now. At least more baroque arrangements, more varied instrumentation; at least his power is more specific, at least now sex, god, and sex. And on and on: Leonard Cohen–esque acoustic arrangements in the early ’90s, and then a double album’s worth of field recordings, ambient soundscapes, and drone-y gospels all braised in grime to cap off a nearly 15-year discography. And here I stand now, somehow back at the beginning, sticky floor and everything low, Gira’s timbres obscuring his own deposition. I feel it in my knees, I lap warm lager, think: Gira’s decision to pause his Angels of Light alter ego for this, tonight, could not have come at a more appropriate time. There are screws more relevant for this moment and tomorrow; people are getting tired of all the waif-y psychedelic shit. Gira knows—it seems he’s always owned it.
This was not 1987 Swans or 1992; why should it be? I loiter in the inevitable pre-encore of the Temple, unsure of exactly what I’d witnessed: this lean, clean-cut version of what I’d been promised—too easy, maybe; this indecisive heaviness paired with a new sense of climate, an unspecified jurisdiction whose only particularity is right exactly now. Presence, in context, has always been Gira’s strongest suit.
“WE ARE FREE”: Gira drones his final coda from a song I’m unfamiliar with, the brass arms of a trumpet section cast like prison bars, breaching his white face. I brush against a friend, and it ends; I spit, don’t know what to make of it all. But I do know that he’s been here tonight—I’ve seen it—not slouching on laurels, but rather getting work done: dirty labor murky and unidentified at the moment, and then one day, poof, bright as the sun.
JOHN AMELCHENKO is a visual artist and writer based in New Brunswick, NJ.