with Swans at the Somerville Theatre
by Chris Adams
SWANS ARE DEAD. That’s what the little pin at the concession stand in the Somerville Theatre lobby reads. And for all intents and purposes, they are. Tonight is their last Boston-area show on their final tour. After over a dozen years pepperred with stunning albums and crushing live performances, they’re calling it quits to pursue other projects. So this is something that can’t be missed, something worth standing in line for–even standing in line in sub-zero weather with a brutal wind surrounded by rejects from Interview with the Vampire, dyed hair teased to the heavens, heavy mascara ready to run with eager crocodile tears of romantic despair.
Opening band Low are, if anything, accurately named. Their music is the aural equivalent of methadone. The Roman Empire could rise and fall between each note, and the songs are couched in such a placid, glacial atmosphere that I’m convinced that if sleep produced an actual sound, it’d be this. But, for whatever weird reason, it works. The combination of a sharp, brittle telecaster and airy vocal harmonies build these impossibly fragile sonic ice-filament sculptures, which drift effortlessly, languidly throughout the domed theatre. This is music that makes you concious of your heart thumping, your hair growing, the dust roaring across the floor. Naturally, some asshole has to take the bait and bellow “YOU SUCK!” which shatters the whole effect. On the upside, it allows everyone to exhale and bathe in the warm glow of mutual hatred. And it also makes you like Low more, as they rip the singer rips the guy apart with a few clever quips. Delivered, of course, in a monotone.
Swans are a different breed entirely. Don’t let the delicate name and stuffed animals scattered about the stage fool ya — there’s nothing fuzzy or cute or cuddly about this group. Swans music descends like a black cloud and comes down in torrents. This isn’t music you listen to, you surrender to it. At the opening of the set, mainman Michael Gira and company begin with a low, rhythmic throb which builds in intensity before it shatters into a pummelling roar of white noise. This is Old Testament music, doused in blood, swarming with pestilence, reeking of sex and sin, longing for a salvation that never comes. Gira cuts an imposing figure, dressed in a full suit, long blond hair slicked black, eyes closed half the time, throttling his guitar and grinding his hips like an Elvis from Hell. His deep voice resonates with resignation, singing songs of hate, fear, fury, lust, and, ocassionally, love — albeit an unobtainable love. There is a certain black humor to the extreme negativity of Gira’s po-faced worldview, but you don’t laugh so much as smile uneasily, in the way some people react when they hear that somone’s just died. In the middle of the set, keyboardist Jarboe, Gira’s wife, takes center stage and sings a trio of songs, with an physical intensity that’s absolutely awe-inspiring, and terrifying. At one point during “Blood On Your Hands” from the Swans World of Skin side-project, I become conviced that her head is going to burst into flames. Yeah, it was that intense. Absolutely mind-numbing. When the show ends — no encores, by the way — the emotionally drained audience mannages to stagger to it’s feet and offers a standing ovation. Swans deserved it. I went home that night feeling like I’d watched the world explode and went to sleep with the lights on. That’s entertainment!