Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Swans, El Ray Theatre, Los Angeles March 2nd, 2011

It is not uncommon for a band embarking on a reunion tour to say “this is not a reunion tour! This is the next stage in our development. This is a step forward etc.” Usually these claims are mere platitudes to get fans to fill the seats. Well, Swans mean what they say. In the 80’s Swans built their reputation off of extremely intense and physically demanding live performances. In the 90’s their performances took the intensity down a few notches, but certainly not the innovation. Much of what Swans accomplished on stage during the 90’s laid the grounds for post-rock. It’s inspiring to see that Swans have not lost their edge, innovation or creativity in spite of the fact that most of the members are in their mid to late fifties. Swans was one of the most epic, heavy and original performances I have ever seen.

Swans enter the stage one by one. First onto stage is Thor Harris. Imagine Thor, the Nordic god of war. Now imagine he’s 5-5. That’s Thor Harris. A short muscular Nordic looking man with long, blonde beard and hair—Thor is the Swiss Army knife of Swans. He plays chimes, drums, random percussion instruments, and a number of homemade wind instruments. Thor begins the show with an eerie cycle of melodies on the chimes over very loud guitar feedback. Next onto stage is keyboardist Christophe Hahn, who sporting a blazer and slicked back hair, looks like some sort of corrupt low-end agent. Bassist Christopher Pravdica is next. Balding, with a short beard and a fluffy white shirt—only the fact he is holding a bass convinces you he is not Amish. The keys fill the high end of the spectrum while the bass fills the low end, collectively filling the entire sound spectrum. Drummer Phil Puleo and guitarist Norman Westburg (who looks like he’s survived 20 years in a rock band and has the scars to prove it) are next to enter the stage, remaining on standby. Finally, Michael Gira enters in a giant cowboy hat, which he sets on an amp, small piercing blue eyes grazing viciously into the crowd. He looks like the type of ominous character one finds in a David Lynch film.

Westburg, Puleo and Pravdica look attentively toward Gira as he swings back and forth along the waves of sound, the moment Gira’s arm swings down toward the guitar the others follow suit creating the first in a long series of monumental walls of sound. Each slow, leviathan riff crushes the audience, while chimes, bells and keys add layers of swirling noises, creating an utterly disorienting environment. From time to time, Gira would let the others play while he slapped himself in the face. By itself, this opening passage was heavier than any metal performance I have ever seen. Eventually, the music eases, but more to reload than to recede. Blistering guitar melodies accompany an intense buildup of drums and chimes, as Gira croons the existential lyrics of “No Words/ No Thoughts,” his style one of a kind blend of country and gothic. After each verse the song builds up into further waves of chaos before falling back down in a more melodic form. Finally, the music stops and Gira sings a capella, as if reading some esoteric text:
Long may he live, long may he live
Long may his children drift through the wind,
To think is a sin, to think is a sin,
Long may his world ne-ver be-gin

Swans covered a wide array of sounds, at times sounding more like noise than anything resembling rock music. Other times they would fall into extended jam sessions, with odd wind instruments layering dark, groovy melodies, recalling Red-era King Crimson. During many of the vocal passages Swans sounded like the most evil and heavy country band to ever exist. Country-blues progressions were played with heavy metal intensity and volume while Johnny Cash style vocals decayed into vicious yells.

The overall impression of the concert was distinctly oceanic. The vastness and depth of the sound mirrored that of the ocean. The sharpness of the high end instruments hit the crowd like giant waves; the low end instruments consumed the listener like a strong undertow. Gira’s lyrics were lonely sailor’s chants toward the heavens. The ominous a capella passages were like moments of clarity within the vast ambiguity of the sea.

While Swans mostly played songs from their new album “My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky,” two classic songs are worth mentioning. First is the performance of “Your Property,” originally from the Young God EP (which still stands as one of the darkest, most disturbing albums ever recorded). Sinister melodies sounding like an evil beast slowly move toward Gira as he sings thoroughly submissive lyrics:
You're My Father
I Obey You
I Want You To Be My Father
I Want You To Be My Father
You Know What I Am
You Know What I Am
I Want You To Kill Me
I'm Weak:
Take What's Mine
Make Me Feel Good
Make Me Feel Soft
Come Into My Room
Put Your Hands On My Throat
Now Choke Me
Gira was in perfect form; calling the dark presence toward him, and speaking the lyrics as if in a trance. As the song peaks, the guitars well up before a series of crushing strikes, like a hammer to the head, as Gira screams “we’ll die! We’ll die!”

The other classic was “Sex, God, Sex” whose bluesy structure melded well with the Swans new sound. Large, lush grooves accompany Gira’s iconoclastic chants.
I will pray
I will pray
I will go down low
And I will pray to you
Down as low as I can go
I will go there and I will pray to you
Finally the song reaches its iconoclastic end. The music stops and Gira screams like a fanatical preacher:
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Jesus Chirst
Say His Name
Jesus Chirst the Lord

The back catalog was cherry picked for songs that fit in with Swans currant style. What the performance amounted to was something both cohesive in spirit and diverse in sound. This really was not a reunion tour. This really was the next great stage of the amazing life that is Swans.

A final footnote has to be mentioned about opening act Devendra Banhart. The set was a disaster. First of all, having a solo folk guitarist prelude the Swans just doesn’t work. A number of Swans fans were heckling him and Banhart fans were clearly frustrated. Second of all, Banhart was clearly on coke. He kept rubbing his nose in between songs and had as serious predilection to go on tangents. At one point he dropped his pick into his guitar. Apparently he didn’t have another, because he stopped the show for a few minutes while he struggled to get the pick out of the guitar, all the while rambling. Soon after he went on rant about how Gira had saved his life (from what? I wonder…). About two songs later Banhart again stopped mid-song, this time for no apparent reason, and once again began to rant. A few minutes later, he just left the stage, having only played for about 20 minutes, tangents and pick rescue included. Considering a lot of people appeared to be there for Banhart this was a shocking development. On the whole Banhart’s set was a complete and utter disaster, but it sure was fun to watch!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Music Box, Hollywood 2/23/11

One of the characteristics of great instrumental music is the ability to reach the collective conscious.  Most people envision a pastoral countryside when hearing Beethoven’s 6th, whether or not they’ve been told that’s Beethoven himself had such images in mind. Similarly most envision the horrors of modern warfare when listening to Shostakovich’s 8th, whether or not they know that he wrote the piece in the midst of World War II.  Grasping an experience, place and moment in a nonlinguistic manner is a rare gift.
Perhaps this is why Godspeed You! Black Emperor has sustained a dedicated fan base, even after a ten year hiatus. Godspeed’s performance at the Music Box in Hollywood sold out in 10 minutes. Fans scalped tickets at exorbitant prices. Many others were left out in the cold, with not nearly enough seats to fulfill the demand. Godspeed’s music has stood the test of time, remaining as relevant as ever.
The performance was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. The band sits in a semicircle, shrouded by two giant screens playing accompanying film. It would be easy to completely overlook the band on stage, underdressed and poorly lit. Rock stars they are not. The first piece, “Storm”, built around melodies that sound straight out of a Southern Baptist church, summons images of the sun rising in the heart of America. These were the exact images that accompanied the joyous melodies.  The music filled every space of the auditorium, coming into contact with the audiences’ bodies. Godspeed is not just heard or seen, it is also felt. The waves of melody flow, one layer after another, drowning the audience in the intense pathos of the songs. When “Storm” shifts, in its third passage, from joy and catharsis to fear and panic the audience is gripped by the shift, as their whole body is shaken by a new force.

Along with the glorious “Storm” the other highlights were “Static” and “East Hastings”. “Static” begins with the auditorium in utter darkness, somber adagio violin and guitar accompanying a recording of a disturbing Christian zealot raving:
because when you see the face of god you will die
and there will be nothing left of you
except the god-man, the god-woman
the heavenly man, the heavenly woman
the heavenly child
there will be terror under this day of night
there will be a song of jubilee waiting for your king
there will be nothing you will be looking for in this world
except for your god
this is all a dream
a dream in death
During the next passage images of burning smoke stacks amidst industrial wastelands light the auditorium while dark, devious progressions, slowly gain force. Blistering, violent, melodies fill the climax. The song ends with disjunct, dissonant screeches and squeals, painting a post-nuclear landscape.  

The closer, “East Hastings”, begins with vast, ominous gusts of sound—like wind passing through empty city streets—while a single guitar plays a lost and lonely melody. Videos of lone individuals wandering city streets, interspersed with visuals from the stock market serve as a backdrop. The song slow picks up pace, as one by one the other instruments join in. Like a protest, the song builds toward a gorgeous interplay of violin and standup base, accompanied by marching snare drum, leading to a sonic valley in which the band quietly hums Yiddish melodies, like a secret meeting before the revolution. The song again picks up pace, moving toward a frantic yet focused climax, as guitars and violins crying out over sharp, swinging rhythms. An onslaught of images pour across the screen—political signs, banned books, crowds heading to the streets en masse.

The concert begins with the words “Hope” cast across the screen. One can't help but take it ironically. At the end of the night there is hope. But the hope is not a gift, it’s a challenge.