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Wednesday, 25 June 2014 15:50

Concert review: Swans punish and delight the willing into submission at the Ready Room, Tuesday, June 24

Concert review: Swans punish and delight the willing into submission at the Ready Room, Tuesday, June 24
Written by Alex Cunningham

Living up to their mythical live reputation, the latest incarnation of Michael Gira's Swans descended upon the Ready Room for a punishing two hour set.

Swans' aptly named percussionist, Thor Harris, took the stage at 9:45 p.m., stirring up a maelstrom of gong strikes to begin new track "Frankie M." Harris was then joined by drummer Phil Puleo and lap steel guitarist Christoph Hahn, adding subtle swirling textures to Harris' metallic drone. Bassist Chris Pravdica, original guitarist Norman Westberg and Swans godhead Michael Gira took the stage after this lengthy introduction, with each instrumentalist building walls of intensity around Gira's repeated vocal line, "heroin, opium, Frankie M." With a 20 minute length and two chords to call its own, "Frankie M" was an immensely effective opening for what would be a night of megalithic workouts.

Throughout the night, one was left feeling the pain of the earplug-less true believers as Swans' set was both sonically and physically brutal. From the first moment Swans' members played simultaneously, the crowd was hit square in the chest with ungodly bass frequencies and the pummeling of savagely mic'd drums. Not a single component of their sound could be ignored in the mix, with auxiliary percussion, homemade strings and dulcimer finding equal representation amongst more traditional elements. Gira's vocals somehow found their way above the aural apocalypse surrounding him. Considering the absurd decibel level of the room, the mix was extremely impressive.

Gira struck a formidable image onstage throughout, with seizure-like hand gestures to match his most debauched shrieks and moans. During the most unforgiving drone sections of the set, Gira would conduct his bandmates with frantic leaps and foot stomps. As a vocalist, Gira ranged from detached groans during "A Little God in My Hand" to the anguished shrieks of the unsettling "Just a Little Boy." The original lyrics of "Seer" highlight, "The Apostate," devolved into manic orders for the audience to "get fucked." No corner of Gira's subconscious was left unexplored.

Swans grew in ferocity as the night unfolded, approaching every song as a challenge to exceed the intensity of the previous outing. New track and set highlight "Don't Go" was exceptionally primal, calling to mind the proto-industrial sounds of their early New York days. "Don't Go" was followed with an extended version of "Bring the Sun" that bashed an already abused audience further into submission. The first 10 minutes of "Bring the Sun" slowly built a menacing crescendo before erupting into complete chaos, and the song acted as a reminder that the band adheres to rules of their own devising. In the amount of time spent building the track's tension, another group might finish four songs, and Swans can credit their continued survival and relevance to this fierce disregard for any notion of conventional structure.

Grinding to a halt at the two-hour mark, Swans reinforced their reputation as one of most intimidating live acts in existence. Considering the two new tracks that crept into their set, one can only wonder how Gira could possibly take the band and their music to even further extremes. Gira's contrarian approach to songwriting proved to be a natural fit for the live environment, resulting in one of the most impressive St. Louis performances of the year.

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