Outside Boston’s Royale, elaborately made-up young women in expensive-looking dresses stood waiting in a line while bearded-types smoked cigarettes on the sidewalk. Royale, which hosted Swans on Saturday, is a nightclub in what I guess was Boston’s theatre district. There are at least two rooms in the place, maybe more. Swans played upstairs, a larger hall, good lights, good sound, an elevated area in front of the stage that it took me a second to realize would become a dance floor as soon as 10PM hit and the weirdo contingent shuffled out to let the clubbers lang — if that can be a verb for what one does when clubbing at the risk of betraying my inexperience in this regard.
And indeed, 10PM. The show was even earlier than I anticipated it being from the Royale‘s website saying doors at 6, show at 7. In the rare and appreciated company of The Patient Mrs., I rolled in at about 6:50 and found Jenny Hval on stage, maybe halfway through her set. Who knew? A lot of people, judging by the crowd. I didn’t find out about that whole “out by 10″ thing until I was already there, and needless to say the evening made more sense afterwards. For Hval‘s part, the Oslo native and her accompanying duo of Håvard Volden and Kyrre Laastad ran a line between moody alternative pop and more experimental indie ambience. Probably not something I’d have gone to see were Swans not coming on next, but creative and well-presented from the few songs I saw. I wouldn’t have minded showing up earlier if I’d been so lucky.
Hval and Co. played in front of Swans‘ elaborate setup — a pedal steel was brought out later for Christoph Hahn, but drummer Phil Puleo and multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris already had their stations ready, and amps for guitarist/vocalist Michael Gira, bassist Chris Pravdica and guitarist Norman Westberg were prepositioned — and that made the changeover shorter than it probably would’ve been otherwise, but still, barely being 8PM, it hardly felt like they needed to rush. Supporting their newly-released third full-length since reactivating, To be Kind (review here), the Swans tour was newly begun. A night in D.C., a night in Philly, then Boston, followed by Manhattan and Brooklyn as a warmup for a longer stretch through the UK taking them through the rest of May into early June, with a longer summer US tour to follow mid-June into July.
My expectations for Swans were high. I remembered well the teeth-vibrating heaviness they conjured at Roadburn 2011, playing material from 2010′s don’t-call-it-a-comeback My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky (review here) as well as some early versions of songs like “The Apostate,” which would appear on 2012′s The Seer. “The Apostate” was aired at the Royale as well, making it the oldest song in a set that included two-point-five from To be Kind in “Oxygen,” “A Little God in My Hands,” and a mutated take on “Bring the Sun,” which appears as the first half of the 34-minute “Bring the Sun/Toussaint l’Ouverture” on the record, and two new songs, “Frankie M.” and “Don’t Go.”
The impulse with Swans since they started playing again — Gira transitioning from Angels of Light back to Swans as he shifted in 1997 from Swans to Angels of Light — has been to think of how apocalyptic they sound, to delve into drone-as-shattering-consciousness hyperbole. I’ve done it too more than once. I think it says much more about who these people are as artists and the deep creative need at work that, the same week their new album is released, they’re already remolding the material and playing two brand new, yet-unrecorded cuts, one of them opening the set. I don’t know whether “Frankie M.” or “Don’t Go” will wind up on the next Swans studio outing, and if they do, I’d expect they’ll be retooled in one manner or another, but just the fact that that’s how Swans go about their business where they could just as easily be plugging the t-shirts and vinyl at the merch booth said a lot about their priorities and how passion-driven they are.
Most likely, two nights into what will be several months of shows, Swans would tell you the show will get tighter. Gira hinted at same in mentioning how the stuff was all pretty new after “Don’t Go,” before he put his guitar down and danced like the mad conductor Jim Morrison wanted to be when he grew up for the bulk of “The Apostate,” directing Harris to hit this or that effect, maybe go for the flute, the horn, the gong, the chimes, or any number of other of the instruments he had in the little box constructed around him next to Puleo‘s also-expansive drum kit, or matching eyes with Pravdica in timing out measures for the insistent slams that start “Bring the Sun.” This lineup of Swans, inexperienced though they may be with bringing To be Kind to the stage, have been playing together for a few years now and it shows. Gira‘s signals, whether it’s a reeled-back leg kick to time a hit for the whole band or a subtle eye-glance to one player or another around him, are well read, and the fullness of sound Swans craft when they choose to do so is as consuming as their reputation would have you believe.
“A Little God in My Hands” was the second song played, behind “Frankie M.,” and offered an early bit of accessibility for what would soon turn into an amorphous spread of builds and crashes. “Oxygen” has form, and so does “The Apostate,” but live the bleed from one piece into the next was only distinct when it came to a silent finish, and while “The Apostate” seemed when they were done like that was it, “Bring the Sun” justified its place as the finale by giving an interpretation of drone-as-ritual that few I’ve seen live could rival. Whatever that track is going to turn into by the time Swans are done doing shows for To be Kind remains to be seen, but hopefully some recording of it surfaces somewhere along the line. It was distinct from the album version not just for dropping the “Toussaint l’Ouverture” half, but also it seemed to be finding its way as it went on — not a jam exactly, but live exploration unfolding in real-time swells of volume and tension. A solid 90 minutes had passed when they were done. I was surprised to look at my watch and see it was 20 after nine.
Downstairs at Royale, thudding dance beats pumped through the wall and as the art students, aged-out goths, metal intellectuals, kids who Pitchfork told to be there, stoners, girlfriends, industrial heads and others poured out of the front door, I spied some sidelong glances from those waiting to go upstairs and… well, whatever it was. So be it. If palpable, willful deviance from the norm was to be the vibe given off, then Swans made perfect figureheads for the evening.
Some more photos after the jump. Thanks for reading.