Michael Gira is a human baton. When the 58-year-old singer, guitar player and godhead behind No Wave, post-rock sun-annihilators Swans performs, he tends to use his entire body to control, inspire and antagonize his fellow band members, a rotating cast of noise-makers who have helped him build one of the most enduring yet inscrutable bodies of work in modern music. Last year, Swans released perhaps its most acclaimed album yet, The Seer, a record Gira called, “the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made.” But right now, at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg, his entire being—his wiggling fingers, his creaking knees, his graying hair, his straining neck—is devoted to making the loudest, most colossal sound in the world.
But first, Gira has to fix his music stand. Before the opening song, Gira adjusts the wiry metal contraption, making sure his notes are visible from behind the mic. That’s the funny and beautiful thing about seeing Swans live: It humanizes them. On record, the band tends to sound like a monolith, a leviathan, a sprawling airborne toxic event horizon that might just knock your skull open—or at least break your headphones. But as a live entity, the group revels in its own raggedy, sweat-stained humanness. Instead of weakening the music, that fleshy quality only makes the group’s doom-drenched songs more complex and impressive.
The band opens with “To Be Kind,” a slow-burn crescendo epic that ends with Gira lifting his guitar up and bringing it down in a big sweeping motion whenever he wants his band to really punish the crowd with a blast of spine-busting dissonance. And, believe me: It’s loud. Like a herd of buffalo tumbling down a staircase. Like a fleet of semi-trucks rolling down an escalator. Like a nuclear bomb going off in an elevator shaft. It’s the type of music that not only makes your ears ring but makes your ribcage tremble. Even when the band is locked into an extended, possibly patience-testing drone, it’s a physically and emotionally draining experience.
What exactly makes it so powerful? Gira’s incredible attention to detail and his Patton-like devotion to making sure the music coming out on stage resembles whatever demented cacophony he has playing in his head. He has the ability to appear genuinely unhinged while staying in complete control. Swans is Gira’s army, and he’s not afraid to play the role of dictator. Lke a terrifying high school basketball coach, he spends much of the show sending visual cues to the other members of his band, and when those cues fail, he simply yells instructions to them, shouting over the cosmic roar. Multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris and bassist Chris Pravdica get it the worst as the show builds, Gira needling them with penetrating glances and the occasional frustrated head-shake.
And yet, despite these flashes of Gira’s temper, the band sounds completely locked in. Gira even seems cheery at times, smiling and gazing out into the crowd while introducing new material and asking who couldn’t come to their last New York show because of the hurricane. Despite the nihilistic lyrics—”Stick your knife in me” was one of the more quotable lines of the night—the execution of the songs, the total command of tone and mood, makes them inspiring, even transcendent.
When the show comes to a close, all six band members gather at the front of the stage and take multiple bows, almost as if they were about to transform the post-show applause and cheers into another extended drone. Instead Swans slowly leave the stage. It’s too bad—I could’ve clapped all night.