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Swans to perform at Tremont Music Hall Sept. 11

by Bryan Reed

Swans to perform at Tremont Music Hall Sept. 11

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Picture by Young God Records

September 8, 2011

There are many ways to describe Swans, the band Michael Gira assembled in 1982, dissolved in 1997, then reformed in 2010. Some describe the band as abrasive, confrontational, heavy (“heavier-than-metal,” wrote a fellow N.C.-based critic). All these are true. But the most apt adjective, I think, is “intense.”

On Sunday, Sept. 11, Swans will perform at Tremont Music Hall in Charlotte, with underground legend Sir Richard Bishop opening. For fans of adventurous rock music, this is a rare opportunity to see these influential acts on what might be their only jaunt through North Carolina. And with their current sets unveiling new material and stretching beyond two-hours, the Swans band members remain as intense as they ever were, just maybe in a different way.

When Gira founded Swans, the band was part of the same influentially inaccessible New York No Wave scene that inspired bands like Sonic Youth. The music’s monolithic scrape and rumble was tied to - and clearly aware of - movements in contemporary literature and visual art of the time. The band’s stark visual aesthetic - Swans’ album covers appear iconographic and authoritarian - meshed perfectly with the band’s dark, convicted sound.

But while plenty of bands were experimenting with dissonance or drones, burdensome heft and hypnotic repetition, Swans was doing all of it. The 1986 live album, Public Castration is a Good Idea, exhibits the band’s confrontational tendencies with its very title. But it’s also a striking document of the musical paradox that defines the sound of Swans’ original artistic peak.

“Money Is Flesh” opens the album with clanging, ominous percussion resonating into a harsh drone. The insistence of the drums and the omnipresent buzz has the determined, apocalyptic stagger of a horde of zombies. Gira’s tremulous howl is at its most threatening here. But what’s most surprising is the realization that this song, which feels like being pulled into a tar pit, is sparsely arranged. The band leaves crucial negative space. So instead of overwhelming the arrangement with an impenetrable wall of noise, “Money Is Flesh” is instead a tense and echoey sonic siege.

Reminiscing about the band’s No Wave heyday, The New Yorker’s pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones recently honed in on Swans’ devout intensity. “Gira expected his audience to be as committed to the ritual as he was,” Frere-Jones wrote. “Swans had an almost religious severity that seemed to proscribe anything that didn’t add to a feeling of claustrophobia and pressure. However bleak his hymnal, Gira demanded the crowd’s full attention as if they were parishioners.”

When Swans disbanded in 1997, Gira focused his attention on his texturally adventurous Americana band Angels of Light and his experimental-folk-leaning record label Young God Records, which has released albums by Devendra Banhart, Akron/Family, and Wooden Wand.

When Swans reformed last year, it wasn’t a reunion or even a return to form, but an opening of a new chapter in the band’s singular catalog. Last year’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky sacrificed none of the intensity of Swans’ mid-’80s masterworks, but showed a more attentive and intricate manner of texture. Piano, horns, acoustic guitar, and mandolin all contribute to the new Swans’ constructed cacophony. The pounding percussion and purposefully ugly guitar squalls haven’t disappeared, nor has Gira’s unrelenting conviction as a front man.

“Inside Madeline” is a characteristically visceral Swans song. Its bass line is a seasick rumble, shifting the equilibrium of an otherwise steady arrangement. Before the vocal enters, the band drops back into a swaying lullaby — albeit one with sharp, harsh vamps. “Now there’s always Madeline/ Rising up from where our limbs intertwined,” Gira sings, his voice a stern incantation with only the slightest hint of sweetness given to this ode to his daughter.

Swans has opened its sound to new timbres and textures, but also to new themes. Bleakness is no longer the end game. Everything has a balance. “My Birth” opens with a flurry of shrill piano that gives way to a surge of baroque-rock drama. Gira enters howling: “Then I strangled your neck/ Because I love you too much/ Then I kissed your red mouth/ Because I love you to death.”

The folk and rock forms Gira explored in Angels of Light and curated through Young God are crucial new elements for Swans’ newer material. Even as the latest pieces to enter Swans’ live setlist swell to epic proportions, some exceeding ½ hour (hence the two-hour-plus sets), My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky proves Swans won’t shy away from melody or structure, either.

It’s that trait that makes chosen tour mate Sir Richard Bishop an unexpectedly complementary opener for Swans. Bishop, like Gira, made his name in the 1980s. He was playing with his brother, Alan Bishop, and drummer, Gocher, in the experimentally-minded Sun City Girls. But where Swans was severe, serious and singular, the Sun City Girls were irreverent, playful and varied. Few genres went unexplored on the bands countless official and unofficial releases.

Three cuts from the Girls’ last U.S. show in 2004 were released this year as part of Three Lobed Recordings’ excellent box-set compilation, Not the Spaces You Know, but Between Them. Given the breadth of the band’s output, it’s not fair to call the three songs particularly indicative of the band’s catalog, but even in such a small sample, the band ranges from art-damaged funk to whimsical rock to Latin exotica.

Apart from the Sun City Girls, Sir Richard Bishop is an accomplished acoustic guitarist, but he’s never shed the polyglot tendencies that made Sun City Girls so exciting. Instead of concentrating on any one style — New American primitive, or English folk, or raga, for example — Bishop mixes them all together for a unique, lyrical approach to the instrument.

That Swans and Sir Richard Bishop are touring, touring together, and touring together in 2011, is notable by any measure. The artists’ past accomplishments alone mark a triumph of American underground music. But as nostalgia consumes more and more of the pop-culture landscape, it’s more exciting and more important that both Swans and Sir Richard Bishop suggest that the present — and the future — can be as thrilling as the past.

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