Promoting their latest album, The Glowing Man, Michael Gira’s Swans came to Dallas on Monday night to deliver a typically powerful set. The Swans are probably the most difficult band to describe to listeners who are unaware of their obtuse and enigmatic music. If Pixies perfected the loud/quiet/loud dynamic, Swans have perfected the ugly/beautiful/ugly dynamic. The Swans performance both demands and challenges the audiences attention. They threaten the crowd with slow building tension that often culminates in a blistering cacophony of sounds. Songs are dissonant, brooding, and as far away from a pop song you could possibly find. That’s not to say it’s hard to listen to, you just have to know what you’re getting into going in. The Swans songs are more cinematic and broad than the traditional pop or rock song structures and clichés. They’re more of a small orchestra than a band.
The Swans are also rare in that they often write new songs from the album tracks as they tinker with their live arrangements over the course of a tour. Perfect example would be the opening song “The Knot,” that some fans have hypothesized is rooted in the track “No Words/No Thoughts.” The balls on this band to open with this song is incredible. Six or seven minutes into the track, all of which featuring Gira with his back to the crowd, some people went back to the bar. The band was essential playing a single chord over and over, with no real drum beat, rather percussive flourishes. Eventually the song gave way into resolving climaxes, but right off the bat the Swans were challenging the audience. This track lead into the more straight forward (as much as the Swans can get) “Screen Shot” from 2014’s To Be Kind LP. The rest of the set was comprised of five songs from The Glowing Man. Mind you, these five songs, and the two before them, made up show of more than two hours.
Musically, the Swans are incredible musicians and songwriters. They’re loud and abrasive; they’re subtle and semi-sweet. But, witnessing it live has a profound impact. In today’s age of ProTools recording techniques, it’s hard to tell how much was ever played live or just an element of post-production. Seeing the Swans pull off these album tracks live is truly awesome. This was my second show in as many years and I’m still flashing back to moments of the concert. Catch them on their current tour, but be prepared to witness something your garden variety rock band couldn’t even touch on their best day.
– J. Kevin Lynch