Preview: The punishing return of Swans


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Defying the grace and beauty of its name, Swans came along in 1983 with a sound so brutal it was deemed "the ideal soundtrack for mass suicides or nuclear holocausts."

Among the niceties obliterated in that blast from the New York No Wave band were the typical conventions of what we knew as rock.

"I guess I just wanted something as visceral as possible," explains Swans frontman Michael Gira, "and it was sort of in antipathy to other things as well, like not wanting to be 'rock,' but wanting the kind of basic sex-violence impact of the best rock music, and just figuring out how to make sounds and rhythms that had maximum impact to mainly set up a scenario for myself, for my own selfish reasons, so that I could scream."

Swans

With: Michael Tamburo

Where: Rex Theater, South Side.

When: 8:30 p.m. Friday.

Tickets: $16; rextheatre.com.

Starting with "Filth," Swans struck with grinding turbulent noise, drones, industrial beats and anguished shouting, making most punk and metal seem like ear candy by comparison. The band forged on for 10 albums, including a goth phase, before its initial swan song in 1997.

"For me it was 15 years of this kind of endless struggle," Mr. Gira says, "and I was feeling boxed in by the precepts that Swans had engendered and the public perception of Swans that I thought was counterproductive and I just wanted to challenge myself and move on to something else."

Counterproductive, he adds, in terms of "the constant harping on how loud the band is, that kind of thing, all the hot-button issues."

The singer/multi-instrumentalist put Swans aside to focus on the more gentle but still dark acoustic offshoot Angels of Light.

"I had been writing songs on acoustic guitar in Swans, but I decided to concentrate on that -- not to be folk, but I wanted to make it kind of miniature films on record based on songs and the words being important. So I moved into that direction with Angels of Light, and eventually after about 13 years that started to feel like a prison as well. So I had been wanting to make sort of more all-consuming sounds again so Swans would be the perfect venue for that."

That brings us to the 2010 return of Swans with the acclaimed "My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky," quickly followed by 2012's "The Seer," a two-hour, riff-pounding soundtrack for the apocalypse.

"It started out I had some songs on acoustic guitar and I had these songs we're playing live and it gradually metastasized really. It grew and expanded and I kind of followed where the thread was leading and I didn't think about format really. I wasn't thinking this has to fit on a CD or LP or two LPs. I just followed it and thought, 'I'll deal with it later.' And eventually, I reached the state of exhaustion financially, physically and emotionally."

So, now Swans is on a tour that focuses on "The Seer" and revisits the band's "greatest hits," right?

Wrong. Why?

"Because it's boring," Mr. Gira says. "I don't want to try to revisit past conquests or failures. I would rather just try to be in the moment. What I want to do is make something happen that feels urgent and is happening now, and the whole idea of promoting an album, it seems kind of stupid and hardly even relevant anymore because nobody buys albums anyway. So I just want to make music that lifts me up to the sky and hopefully the audience, all of us in the band as well."

The current shows include the half-hour-long title track and maybe one older song, and the rest is focused on material that hasn't been recorded yet.

The album features a guest spot from Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as well as vocal help from longtime Swans member Jarboe. She however is not part of the reconstituted group, again, in part to make this feel less like a reunion. He is joined by original Swans guitarist Norman Westberg, longtime associates Phil Puleo (Cop Shoot Cop) and Thor Harris, plus Christoph Hahn and Chris Pravdica.

He was looking for musicians who "could make convincing sounds with their instrument" and exert "a willingness to completely push themselves to the edge to try to get this live sound that's leading us rather than us reciting something. And that takes a lot of physical and emotional commitment."

By focusing on unrecorded material, the energy stays fresh and unpredictable every night.

"Some nights it's the highest I can imagine being just in the music. Other nights it's a struggle just trying to get somewhere but that is partially due to the fact that the material is always shifting and changing."

music

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576.


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