Pradžia / Radikaliai

Swans live at 'La Zona Rosa', Austin TX, 14 September 2012

Publikuojame žymaus eksperimentinės muzikos žinovo, muzikanto Thomas Bey William Bailey specialiai parašytą pasakojimą apie neseniai naują albumą išleidusios legendinės grupės "Swans" koncertą Austino mieste Teksase, JAV.

Thomas Bey William Bailey
2012 m. Rugsėjo 25 d., 11:23
Skaityta: 1008 k.
Swans. Facebook picture
Swans. Facebook picture

If considered only within the ambit of modern popular music, then the saga of Michael Gira's Swans seems to be defined primarily by its paradoxical nature. They were a band that closed shop at arguably the peak of their powers, whose greatest admitted failure came during the apparent attainment of success (their brief dalliance with a major record label), and who attempted at various points in their career to transcend suffering by "exacerbating and aggravating"[i]it. However, if we ignore the fact that most of the music industry generally avoids moments that contradict the pre-fabricated public images of its stars, Swans are one of the bands that - both on record and off - most skillfully illustrates the paradoxes that define the human experience. For a great many of us, it isn't unusual at all to fall prey to greater humiliations when the attainment of success raises the stakes, or to engage in some form of abreaction therapy by which we "work through" personal horrors. The latter tendency, in particular, has been refined by Swans into a sort of musical subgenre all of its own. The band's catalog is thick not only with fictional portrayals of such scenarios (including cautionary stories about becoming the thing that one most despises), but is also distinguished by the amount and articulacy of the incriminating material that Gira is willing to reveal. For example, "You See Through Me," - the leadoff track from his 1995 "Swans-related solo project" Drainland - features spare, melancholic instrumentation beneath a recording of a caustic domestic argument between Gira and former Swans chanteuse Jarboe, the contents of which would probably be kept under wraps by even the most confessional of "reality television" stars. But then again, while those confessional television shows are generally scripted to feature some conclusive moment of redemption, "You See Through Me" remains open-ended and, as such, forces the listener to see the potential for such episodes within himself or herself.

I'd submit that much of what we now call "extreme music" can be thematically boiled down to such exercises; encouragements for listeners to self-identify with negative or destructive forces as a means of eventually diminishing their influence. Swans, whether its 2012 edition takes pride in this status or not, remains one of the paragons of this "extreme music," in part because of their own unshakable statements of intent: for example, a 1984 interview for the Unsound magazine finds Gira confessing that "the only basis we use to judge the music is whether or not its extreme enough."[ii]In retrospect, it is easy to see that Gira's definition of extremity was a broad one, having more to do with a methodology of testing all dearly held values and perceptions than with one immutable set of aesthetic devices. However, some tragicomic sideshows have resulted when this definition of extremity crashed into the more narrowly-defined pop cultural understanding of the term, which bases itself more exclusively upon metrics of physical violence and psychological punishment. Beginning with the late-1980s period in which Swans tempered its sonic maelstrom with "gentler" elements (acoustic guitar, Jarboe's lush contralto vocals, etc.), a great hue and cry came up from the supporters of the group's more perceptibly violent phase. To give just one example, Mark Solotroff of the Chicago "power electronics" group Intrinsic Action sounded off about the group's perceived betrayal of original intentions after supporting Swans at the venerable Cabaret Metro: "without a trace of arrogance, I can happily say that we blew them off of the stage," Solotroff boasted. Expanding on this, he says that "people even came up to us after the show to tell us such things…but this was not too hard, as at that point, Swans were perfecting their very unappealing 'country western' sound, and were busy with Joy Division covers."[iii]Delivering the would-be coup de grâce, Solotroff admits that this momentous killing of the idols was done with only a "small hand-held noise generator and a heavily treated bass guitar." And undoubtedly many believe this version of events - that this leather S+M-harnessed David felled the Goliath of New York Extremity with only the most quotidian of means - and still speak of it in reverent tones during the latest edition of the No Fun festival.

Yet here we are, deep into 2012, with Swans appearing for yet another ambitious and taxing concert tour campaign (I was on hand for the Austin performance at La Zona Rosa.) They obviously didn't receive the memo stating that they had long ago been made irrelevant by more conceptually mediocre forms of aesthetic extremity. So, with these lengthy digressions out of the way, it would be well worth discussing what the new Swans incarnation has to offer casual music fans and extremism afficionadoes alike. The band has released a new triple LP, The Seer, already being spoken of in superlative terms ("masterpiece" etc.), and making some of us wonder if Gira's 2010 reanimation of Swans was done just to bring things to a more proper conclusion than the last time. I say this because it's difficult to imagine the band doing something more monumental or definitive than these new recordings without straying into the realms of conceptual quirkiness. A caveat, though, is that Swans have something of a reputation for mischievously ditching by-the-book versions of new album material from the setlists of their subsequent tours, and replacing them in the set either with dramatic reassessments of 'back catalog' material, or with completely new variations on current lyrical and instrumental themes (see the Swans Are Dead documentation of their 1997 performances for a prime example of this.) This means that the present tour should by no means be seen as a replication of The Seer material, but as an extension upon it or just a kind of 'parallax view' of it. A couple of pieces do remain true to the record, as is the case with the steady gut-punch groove of "The Apostate," but even here the lyrics have been altered from previous versions, in such a way that reminds of the hectoring thumbnail sketches of authoritarianism from the band's Cop era.

Part of the reason for this strategy of reassessment is, of course, that the six-piece touring band is somewhat more modest than the larger number of studio musicians and sound technicians needed to realize The Seer and its predecessor, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky. Transporting such a crew would be a formidable financial and logistical challenge, and is unnecessary when considering that the band's 'core six' are capable of churning out intense, febrile songs that energize regardless of whether or not you can relate them to something more familiar. All in the group are alumni of other Gira-related projects, and so the promise of an ear-splitting evening is bolstered by the promise of a strong synergy between musicians: this is probably best seen and heard in the percussion team of Thor Harris and Phil Puleo, who provide an incredible mastodon-strength stomp leavened with a thoughtful use of bells, chimes, vibraphone and ringing hammer dulcimer. Another sub-unit, formed by bassist Christopher Pravdica and guitarist Norman Westberg (a mainstay of Swans during their most commonly acknowledged period of unrelenting extremity), often shadows the 'lead' maneuvers of the percussionists, but also provides haunting and hovering atmospherics that are especially rich when merging with the long decay times of Harris' pitched percussion instruments. Pedal steel player Christoph Hahn, who has the unenviable distinction of remaining seated as the music reaches full burn, is very much a 'secret weapon' of this group, and is capable of unique voicings with his instrument that are not beholden to any particular style of music other than, well, Swans.

Then, of course, there is Gira himself. Remember those Swans albums that advised you, in stentorian capital letters, to PLAY AT MAXIMUM VOLUME? Well, when Gira casually strolls into place armed with a "customized" Gibson ESS-series guitar, which is gutted of its control knobs and bandaged in the wounded areas with electrical tape, it doesn't take too long to figure out what the single "custom" setting on this axe may be. Though Gira does take the traditional bandleader's position at center stage, and does occasionally yell out instructions or encouragements to the other Swans, the group never gives the impression of being subservient to the band's sole constant member. The burden of responsibility placed upon each instrumentalist seems more or less equal, and the ability of each musician to not relinquish that burden - i.e. to not hasten the songs' florescence with extra flourishes and fills - says a good deal about their technical maturity, and about their disregard for what typically constitutes skill in the domain of loud electric music. Like "extremity," "technicality" also has its own narrow musical definition (usually meaning an ability to maintain some semblance of musicality at blinding speeds), and Swans' dynamic power has much to do with rejecting this as the lone benchmark for virtuosity.

Within this context, Gira's vocal role in the current Swans ensemble is also just different enough from previous outings to be notable. With the possible exception of a great reproduction of old hammer-fest "Coward," and the celestial opener appearing on setlists as "To Be Kind," Gira seems to bide his time until an appreciable amount has already been "said" by the music- and even at this point, his booming incantations don't offer resolutions so much as they add an extra dimension of mystery. Gira's vocal turns vaguely touch upon familiar themes of the inescapable interdependence of living things, and neatly express the simultaneous terror and ecstasy that can be extracted from this state of affairs. Though none of this is a brand new approach for the band - some signature late '90s pieces, e.g. "The Final Sacrifice," worked in the same manner - Gira appears more content now to use his voice for emphasis or as a means of summarizing songs' foregoing developments. It seems, anyway, like a logical development: as the music expands to a level of spatial saturation that reminds of everything from the works of Giacinto Scelsi to massed Tibetan chant, it seems only fair that its primary orchestrator get a chance to also enjoy the feeling of weightlessness that it provides. At various points throughout the show, Gira sways as if buffeted by strong winds, or stretches out his arms and allows his free hands to quiver involuntarily. It's difficult to tell whether he is, as they say, "losing himself" in the sound or maybe "finding himself" there, but it's ultimately unimportant - what is noteworthy is how convincing Gira's little raptures appear to be, and how infectious they are in turn. After all, isn't this supposed to be the point of real "extreme music," that this confrontation with extremes involves some potential for potential transformation? Any "extreme" act can be bludgeoning and insistent (as Swans often are during these new pieces of 15-20 minutes' length), but it is Swans' appreciation for the nuances within extremity, and for the unintended consequences of blasting open a door into who-knows-what, that continues to place them in a league beyond the stylistic conservatism of garden-variety distortion fetishists.  

At this late point in the game, some special credit also needs to be given to the band-audience rapport for making this show such a success. Since Austin is regularly touted as the Live Music Capital of the United States ™, we can expect shows that might be received enthusiastically elsewhere to be met with indifference by the relatively 'spoiled for choice' locals. Despite the Zona Rosa being generously salted with hipster / slacker types you might not expect to enjoy such a demanding concert, smugness and feigned ennui was at an absolute minimum. Though much of the crowd was visibly exhausted after some 80-odd minutes of performance, there was a palpable feeling of respect for the man who, soaked in sweat and bottled water at center stage, was more exhausted still- this respect seemed to necessitate staying in place until the band finished their entire set or crumbled from fatigue. And it would be difficult to find many other live music precedents for age-defying displays of physical and mental exertion, save for maybe the 3-hour birthday extravaganzas indulged in by Keiji Haino. Our avuncular host, who is in an upbeat mood and definitely appreciative of the support, nonetheless did his best to remind us we're all "Gira's kids"- he refered to the audience as "boys and girls" and generally radiated a feeling of advanced experience. After the last of many successive musical climaxes faded away, and the group took a series of bows onstage (warning us that they don't do encores after 2-hour sets), an invitation from Gira to come chat with him at the merchandise booth did indeed send a swarm of his dutiful children scurrying in that direction. It was a surprisingly sweet ending to the evening- yet hardly paradoxical.

[i]"LP Reviews: Swans" by Carl Howard. Artitude No. 4 (February 1985), p. 2.

[ii]"Swans" by David Sprague. Unsound Vol. 1. No. 5, (1984), p. 16.

[iii]  "Intrinsic Action interview #1" by Shunya Suzuki. Industrial Report #2 (publication date unlisted), p. 5.