I recently saw the band Swans live for the second time. They were promoting a stellar new album (The Seer) which essentially encompasses all of the varied and challenging music that bandleader Michael Gira has made under a few different monikers over the last thirty years. In the two years since I saw them last, I had gotten to know their oeuvre better, and coming to this show with a more educated ear paid off. Swans’ allure can be difficult to explain since their output is generally pretty ugly by conventional standards, but their live show has helped me fill in a piece of that allure’s puzzle: their music is intensely physical.
Part of it has to do with the sound being produced organically, from musical instruments and non-instruments alike, and the ability of that sound to embody the physical act – from delicate precision to chaotic, flailing abandon – with which it was derived. Modern production techniques have a way of making music sound like it just happens, but one never doubts that a Swans record is the result of manual labor, and that labor is made manifest in the band’s apocalyptic live show.
But there is another not-so-secret physical ingredient that pushes a Swans show into transcendent territory: extremely high volume. How loud is it? Well, it occurred to me that a deaf person might get nearly as much out of the show as I did. It is loud enough to make your insides rumble, effectively forcing you to listen with your entire body. And this makes the experience that much more immersive: if you’re already attuned to the emotional and intellectual qualities of the music, the volume will penetrate you physically as well. A Swans show can and will overtake the whole of one’s being.