Live Review: Swans

by Mitch Goldman

Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, GA 7/30/95

NYC's Lower-East–side angst-mongers the Swans may have relocated to Georgia last year, but they've lost none of the depression and anger that has made their music so compellingly bleak and hypnotic. The pall that hangs over New York is apparently mobile, as evidenced by the Swans' July show at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta.

The Swans are one of those bands that focuses on the here and now, preferring to play recent material and eschew any nods to previous releases. They've progressed at an almost exponential rate since their debut LP Filth in 1982. Formed by guitarist/singer/songwriter/head brooder Michael Gira (the only original member left in the band), the Swans' early material featured the monotone rhythms and gutteral growls found in the early '80s noise minimalism of the Lower East side (think: Glenn Branca, Foetus, etc.). The Swans stuck with this ear-vibrating, amelodic aesthetic through four more releases: the Cop LP in '83, the Young God EP the same year, '84's Holy Money LP and '85's Greed EP. But by the mid '80s, something astounding happened ... Gira and longtime cohort/keyboardist/female singer Jarboe discovered ... melody! They also began layering their recordings with instrumentation not normally associated with post-punk music, namely keyboards, acoustic guitars, vibes, etc. The results have been shockingly consistent ... Children of God, The Burning World, White Light from the Mouth of Infinity, and Love of Life are gorgeous studio albums, featuring lush instrumentation, Gira's low-pitched, Sisters of Mercy-ish vocals and Jarboe's high-pitched wails and yelps. Their most recent LP, The Great Annihilator (released in January of '95) continues this Joy Division-meets-Velvet Underground trend, as do two solo LPs released this summer, one by Gira and one by Jarboe.

The Swans' 90-minute set at the Variety Playhouse contained only three tunes from Annihilator, a couple of solo tunes (and selections from the World of Skin, Gira and Jarboe's side project). Much of the music was unrecognizable, consisting of new songs for an as-yet-unrecorded album. From start to finish, the show was the textbook definition of "mesmerizing" ... Jarboe on keyboards, Gira on guitar, and unnamed sidemen on guitar, bass and drums, led the Atlanta audience on a journey of dense, repetitive rhythms and melody that defied description. Repetition can be boring, but the Swans made it hypnotic ... songs would build, texture upon texture, until an obvious climax was reached ... at which point, the song would build some more, usually ending minutes after you'd think the song would end. The drummer was especially impressive, using only a bass drum, two floor toms, and cymbals. The rhythms of each tune would escalate in a propulsive manner, accentuating the shimmering, chiming guitars and keyboards. Gira's voice was in fine form, as his deep baritone sang tales of woe and angst. On her tunes, Jarboe yelped into a mic stand, while Gira sat at her keyboards. On "Mother/Father" from Annihilator, Jarboe screeched while the second guitarist soothed the instrumental background with accordion sounds.

Overall, the show had a Grateful Dead-like feel, as an undefined "x factor" caused the music, the band, and the audience to propel upwards during each "jam." Huddled around the drum kit, backs to the audience, Gira and company led the four or five hundred faithful to new heights of shared intimacy through music. Truly a magic, and mesmerizing night of music for which words are totally inadequate.

Copyright 1996
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