One by one, a motley gang of intense-looking men weave their way through a maze of speakers and instruments and begin to build a wall of sound. At first, it needn’t be categorized as music, and at certain times throughout the set, by most metrics, it wouldn’t be, especially according to most people Michael Gira’s age. Then again, from a certain perspective, everything is music; some of it, you just can’t hear.
The opening set by Jamie Stewart had been an unexpected endurance test. If the first minute of the new Xiu Xiu album, Angel Guts: Red Classroom, was your favorite, then you might have been in heaven; whatever zeros and ones that peculiar bit of electronic scatology is composed of, they could be heard at times during Stewart's half-hour of knob-twisting, excruciating noise, but otherwise you'd be hard pressed to tell anyone that you'd just experienced a Xiu Xiu set. In fact, you might feel ripped off, assuming that Stewart was just being a belligerent provocateur, as he very frequently is, if you weren't aware that he's been going through some medical issues with his throat this year. Then again, if you let your brain float above it for a minute, you might be forced to examine whether this abrasive, obnoxious assault on the ears might actually be the next evolutionary step beyond what your rapidly-approaching-middle-age sensibilities can yet process. Remember when you thought techno wasn't music? Yeah. So this didn't even have a beat. So it could scarcely be said to feature notes. Who are you to say that in twenty years it mightn't be considered tame? Look at Ozzy for fuck's sake.
The Swans set begins with Thor Harris and his arsenal of things to hit, some deep chimes being the initial sounds. Drummer Phil Puleo emerges next, and then Christoph Hahn, whose otherworldly lap steel sounds are a constant reminder that this band is probably from another planet. Finally, everyone else walks out, and Gira begins to orchestrate a push-and-pull of sonic violence and peace. After the opening song, he demands that all smoking cease lest he stop the show; someone yells out, "HE MEANS IT". In the middle of "Just A Little Boy", when he's ready to dive into the pummeling outro, Gira reaches down wordlessly and plucks a cell phone out of the hand of a kid in the front row and places it on a speaker behind him. If only he could also force everyone in the room to stop talking while he's playing music, he would single-handedly solve all of my concert hangups (since almost no one is seated), but Swans are usually loud enough that nearly all the chatter is drowned out anyhow.
Some fans of improvisational music feel that any obvious onstage communication between bandmates takes all the magic out of the jams. I would argue that Swans would change their minds, if they were the type who could handle this caliber of noise. There are irresistible grooves within the seething aggression, and the waves of tension and peace flow based on Gira's synergy and antagonism with the other members of the group. Puleo is usually his copilot; Hahn often seems to bear the weight of Gira's purposeful glare and frantic gestures. Few musicians since Beefheart have taken such a sculptor's vision and hacked away at sound like this force of nature. Gira is an industrial shaman, channeling spiritual oneness within a context of heavy, bludgeoning music. You emerge cleansed, drenched, but inspired rather than spent.