Loud. Abrasive. Painful. Overpowering. Staggering. Beautiful.
These are all things that could describe Swans in their many forms. For the uninitiated, Swans is an experimental musical group that grew from the 80s no wave movement. Starting out as a heavy, insulting, and generally painful group with albums such as Cop and Filth, which are to this day some of the heaviest and hard to listen to albums ever made, they have grown into a less abrasive and more unrelenting artistic group. The band’s line up has shifted many times since its inception, and in early November they performed their last show as the band’s current incarnation in Brooklyn. I had the privilege to see them.
At 7 pm I arrived in Warsaw, Williamsburg, to see my friend Austin waiting in line. After an hour of chatting and waiting for the doors to open we went inside. He was in the front of the line, so we got right up to the stage. Then we waited for around one and half hours, talking about our favorite Swans albums and about the current experimental scene. Then Anna von Hausswolff, an experimental organist from Sweden, walked on stage. After saying how proud she was to be playing with Swans during their last concert, she sat down and started to play. It was different from the abrasive loud sound of Swans, but trance-inducing nonetheless. The sound of the electronic organ was like being wrapped in a blanket; nobody was moving, only listening. Then, with her sister, she started to sing. Her voice was incredible and eerie at the same time, putting everyone in an almost out-of-body trance. After an hour of Anna’s organ playing she bowed and left the stage.
We waited for another hour with enough anticipation in the room to suffocate a small animal. We waited as sound engineers turned on the wall of enormous amplifiers that would soon be assaulting our ear drums. Then Michael Gira, a six foot tall blond man, who has a reputation of being angry, violently angry, came out. I was lucky enough to be so close to stage to see him up close, and just being near him was a humbling experience, as he was so prepared for the set that would unfold. After the other band members joined him on stage, Gira gave the word. They started to play.
What occurred next was perhaps the loudest concert I have ever been to. Even with earplugs, I have heard nothing that could compare, not a jackhammer nor airplane could even approach the sound that came from the wall of amplifiers. From the first note, a wave of noise descended on the audience. The enormous shift in air pressure and the fact that we all were standing in the same place for almost three hours put myself and everyone in the room in a dreamlike trance. Every time a bass note was played, or a kick drum hit, or a bellowing yell from Gira, the air would be knocked out of everyone’s lungs. At some points I was truly afraid because the band was reaching levels of controlled aggression I had never seen before.
Consistently through the show, my brain was running with thoughts that never before crossed my mind. Why do I exist? Who am I? What I am on Earth for? No piece of art has ever made me question my mere existence as much as Swans. At the climax of the show, Gira lifted his hands to the sky in an almost praying fashion. Then he dropped them, releasing a mind-bending amount of sound from the band. This went on for 10 minutes, but it felt as if time stopped and I had an opportunity to truly exist. After the show was over the trance went away.
Minutes after the show finished, I got my mind back. I was able to control my body. I realized that I will most likely never attend another show of such caliber. But then, I realized it didn’t matter because this show changed me. The show taught me to be present and live. I will never stop looking for a band like Swans, but I’ll be hard pressed to find one.