Swans w/ Xiu Xiu @ Shank Hall
Sept. 22, 2012
One of the key bands to emerge from New York’s fertile,
boundary-pushing No Wave scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Swans’
original incarnation, founded by singer-guitarist Michael Gira and rounded out
by a rotating cast of musicians and noise-makers, was active from 1982 to 1997.
When they disbanded to give Gira more time to work on other projects, they bid
farewell with the bluntly titled live collection Swans Are Dead. The finality implied by that release was apparently
less than absolute, though, as Gira resurrected the project for 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky,
the warmly received comeback that set the stage, both creatively and
financially, for The Seer, released
this year to uniform praise. Some have lamented the absence of longtime
keyboardist and songwriter Jarboe, but just about anybody who cared in the
first place is happy to have them back.
Opening Saturday’s show was kindred spirit Xiu Xiu, the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Jamie Stewart. As with Swans, quite a few people have cycled in and out of Xiu Xiu over the years, most recently keyboard player Angela Seo, but here Stewart appeared solo, grinding out a dynamic, delay-drenched cacophony from guitar, synthesizer, theremin, kazoo and a stout, oddly shaped gong, at which he launched pebbles from a slingshot. Ominously dark, sensitive as a raw nerve and unapologetically formless, Xiu Xiu is the very definition of an act that’s not for everybody. Depending on where your tastes lie, Stewart’s set was probably either hauntingly original or claustrophobically self-indulgent, though it’s entirely conceivable that you could also go back and forth several times within the space of a single song.
There was palpable excitement as Gira and company took the stage, a feeling that only got more intense as they progressed through the ghostly new “To Be Kind,” which provided a mounting slow build to the crushing loudness that would dominate the rest of their set (though the volume never rose to the level of their notorious early performances, which, rumor has it, used to induce vomiting in some fans). When he wasn’t brutalizing his guitar, Gira gestured wildly and mystically at his band mates, which included returning guitarist Norman Westberg and relative newcomers like percussionist Thor Harris (whose woolly mane, striking mallets and lack of a shirt caused him to look more than a little like his divine Norse namesake), as if he were some kind of deranged conductor, guiding them through dense, minimalist renditions of material from the new albums as well as enduring older cuts like “Coward” from 1986’s Holy Money.
Their set lost a bit of its direction about two-thirds of the way through, but that wouldn’t have been much of an issue if it wasn’t so exhaustingly long to begin with, clocking in at well over two hours. It’s hard to fault a band for trying to give more (though given Swans’ historically confrontational relationship with audiences, they may have turned it into an endurance contest on purpose), but there’s a thin line between getting your money’s worth and getting too much of a good thing. As a listener, you’re simply not as present and engaged after that amount of time, no matter how interesting a performance may be, and that effect is exacerbated when it comes to a band that explores repetition as a compositional tool as much as this one. It was, unsurprisingly, a high-caliber show, but you’d think a group that tosses around slogans like “waste is obscene” would know when to put a pin in it.