Through the 1980s and 1990s, the often uncomfortable sonic art of Swans gave life to and shone light on the darkest corners of metal, goth, and punk. The indie-rock world shook a little this year when Michael Gira announced that he was putting on the shelf for a while his superb doom-folk outfit Angels of Light in order to revive Swans and record new music with them. He also outlined a short autumn tour starting in Philadelphia.
The crowd at the former burlesque house called The Trocadero was a strange mix of cleaner-cut folks, stylishly presentable punks and goths, and bearded bike-messenger dudes who couldn’t possibly listen to all of the underground metal advertised on their T-shirts. Longtime dark-music fans alongside very new or at least unassuming converts to Swans’ genius—all were curious to see what Swans had in store for opening night.
The introductory drone of “No Words/No Thoughts” from new album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky served as their stage-setup and entry music, with Thor Harris appearing first to add dulcimer to the mix. The rest of the band would eventually steamroll over him with guitars, bass, and Phil Puleo’s monstrous drum hits. Gira and his fellow players at the front of the stage often turned their backs on the crowd in order to watch Harris and Puleo and stay on point.
Watching Swans here was like watching a supergroup made up of bands they could easily have influenced, namely Einsturzende Neubauten and The Jesus Lizard. Ever present were Gira’s spit-’em-out lyrics, little experimental touches like Harris’ use of a bow on a vibraphone during Cop track “Your Property,” and of course a wall of chugging, wailing guitar sound. At curtain time that was enthralling; midway through it was therapeutic; by show’s end it was something of a whitewash, almost suggesting a lack of variety. Scant few moments featured harmonic hard rock (as in the sludgy “My Birth”) or intertwined the soft and powerful (abrupt show closer “Eden Prison”).
Considering the size of Swans’ back catalog and the length of their absence, it was rather unfulfilling to hear just eight songs in an hour-plus set, half of them from the new album and another two from 1987’s Children of God. Also missing from the show was longtime lady Swan Jarboe. She’s a divisive figure in the Swans universe and has her own musical and artistic interests, but it would have been refreshing to hear a female voice mixed in with the sextet of old, suave, reformed punks on the Troc stage.
With about eight months to prepare and rehearse following Gira’s initial announcement, and with a lineup of players from different incarnations and offshoots of the band, Swans had ample opportunity to deliver a face-melting performance. While it was certainly a rush to see the man and his band in the flesh, Gira and company’s output felt merely in-your-face, and ultimately disappointing.