Swans and Xiu Xiu @ Crescent Ballroom| Wednesday, September 12, 2012
It was a night worth gutting one's helpless past. Guys with goatees in the front row were pounding their fists on the stage; people were making pterodactyl noises and screaming at random intervals. Maybe it's been a weird month, or maybe I'm just having trouble avoiding mall goth hyberbole, but there's no reason to cower: Swans and Xiu Xiu are two acts dedicated to monolithic strife, to viewing pain in its totality.
Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu performed solo, remaining seated except when bending over to fuck with his unforgiving effects pedals, remaining silent between songs except to thank the attendees and Swans before his finale. His lone presence onstage was disconcerting until I remembered there have rarely been two similar Xiu Xiu live incarnations. In fact, this was easily the most intense Xiu Xiu performance I've witnessed.
Stewart managed to conjure the impact of multi-faceted tracks like "Say Hi" and "The Wigmaster" with nothing but a small synth or finger-tweaked oscillator, at times punching his fist into the invisible wavelength of a volatile-sounding theremin or shooting a close-by mini-gong with a slingshot. The horrific cardiogram tempo of "I Luv Abortion" was rendered on sheets of autoharp, while Stewart's hopeless rendition of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" was given some updated lyrics and a throbbing synth wash. There was a consistent low-level thrum coming from the P.A. system that registered lightly during moments of silence, like Stewart was playing in a basement meat locker.
Swans were basically an exercise in tantric industrial dynamics. Bandleader Michael Gira signaled flurries of black metal arpeggios with the first drop of his guitar neck, starting the first of many excitingly loud movements. The band was most often propelled by the ominous roll of primordial floor tom and tubular bells, with affected lap steel adding more force to the fray. Many tracks from new double-album The Seer where played in their entirety, Gira making no effort to conceal his commands to his band to play faster, repeat it, give me more.
All of his unpleasantness feels earned, though. Hearing Gira sing, "Would you knife me / I love you" in front of guitar shrapnel with no immediacy is genuinely petrifying. When hearing him sing, "Your life is in my hands," you have no reason not to believe him. Whereas Stewart breaks things into momentary shards, Gira lets everything fester in one place.
Swans commanded the stage for two hours, but time was rendered very pliable. These lengthy dirges were full of trapdoor endings, extended codas. What felt like a cymbal crash of finality was often the first of a new set. The end never felt like the end, a hinted resolution merely a cue for continuation. Everything resonates until it doesn't.
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Last night: Swans and Xiu Xiu @ Crescent Ballroom
Never a bad idea: Earplugs.