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Swans To Reform? Michael Gira Live at the Oxfam Café

Seemingly out of the blue, Michael Gira came to Tufts University on April 26th and played for a group of about 50 people. The show had been announced just days before he was to perform, but this did not stop him from playing a set composed of new songs, as well as some familiar material from both Swans and Angels of Light. I took some notes from the performance and had the chance to talk with him both before and after the show. Somewhere along the line he managed to utter the words "Swans" and "tour" in the same sentence.

 

(Photographs courtesy of Doug Roark.)

Even without screeching guitars and pounding drums pouring out from behind him, Michael Gira is an imposing figure. By himself, he produces a wall of sound that is every bit as powerful as the music produced under the name Swans or Angels of Light. As one attendee remarked after the show, it was obvious that Gira didn't sing as loudly as he did because Swans was a loud band, the band had to be as loud and as heavy as they were in order to be heard over Gira's voice. Playing the guitar more like a drum than a stringed instrument, Gira performed a set of 12 songs, half of which were brand new. Most of these were unrecorded songs that might've been played at other venues, but two of them, "Oxygen" and "Eden Prison," were live debuts never before performed. Included among the new songs were renditions of "Promise of Water," "Nations," and "My Brother's Man" as well as "Destroyer," "Goddamn the Sun," and "Failure." It became obvious to me after awhile that Gira was at his best when he was performing his less rhythmically aggressive songs. "Promise of Water" was loud enough to warrant ear plugs and it was exciting to hear Gira compulsively uttering woops and hollers as he beat on his guitar, but songs like "Nations" and "My Brother's Man" were just a little too uniform. "Destroyer" and "Goddamn the Sun," on the other hand, were majestic. Gira's voice managed to be both tender and caustic during each of these songs and their simple melodies translated well to the solo environment. When the opening chords of "Failure" began, a tangible excitement could be felt in the small crowd. Gira has unceasingly produced heavy and dense music, but his best songs on this night were the more subtle and brooding ones.

The new songs were, however, the highlights for me. "Little Mouth" opened the set with a simple guitar melody that repeated itself over and over again; Gira's voice provided all the variation the song needed. It was filled with a dark and sarcastic tone that reminded me of some of the songs from We Are Him. With just a guitar to accompany him, Michael made it almost completely meditative. "Opium Song" continued the set and was much heavier and faster. Gira bashed the strings on his guitar quickly, forming a stacatto eighth-note rhythm that relented only for the sake of the chorus. "Oxygen," which Gira introduced as a song "about breathing," was wholly mantric and repetitive. Slowly working up to the chorus, Gira strummed the same chord only to relieve the tension with a vocal gasp and the line, "I will not open these lips." "Eden Prison," which he said was written just two days prior to the show, sounded completely different from the rest of the set. Gira's style of playing changed somewhat, recalling Jason Molina's low, resonant style in Songs: Ohia. Small melodic variations swelled and retreated for the duration of the song, with abrupt bouts of dissonance erupting from the low end of his guitar. Gira was playing hard enough that the two lower strings on the guitar shook the windows and light fixtures in the room. "Reeling the Liars In" and "Inside Madeline" were the two new songs that impressed me the most. The first was a lyrically brutal song that featured virtually no accompaniment. As I remember it, Gira only plucked the guitar here and there, pulling mostly low end hums out of the strings. During one part of the song, Gira sang, "The only true thing, the place to begin, is to burn up the liar pile." There was a satisfying bitterness in his voice complimented by a narrative tone. It reminded me of a hybrid Swans/Angels of Light song. "Inside Madeline" began with a pseudo-romantic chord progression that called to mind classical guitar pieces like "Malagueña." It quickly changed as Gira sang, "The engine divine, is inside Madeline." This was by far the most melodic of the songs played that night. It wasn't hard to imagine it being supplemented by cavernous percussion and a thumping bass. I could just imagine the Angels of Light behind him, complimenting his heavy delivery.

After the show, Gira stuck around for awhile and talked to fans. At some point, Brainwashed's Jon Whitney asked him where he saw all of these songs going. It seemed obvious to most everyone that they were going to turn up on the next Angels of Light record. I was a little surprised to hear Gira's response: these songs reminded him more of Swans than Angels of Light. He said that it might be possible these songs would turn up on another Swans record. When I finally got the chance to ask him about this myself, he said that he didn't want to get into it too much, but that he was definitely thinking of Swans again. Perhaps, he said, there would one day be an Angels of Light and Swans tour. And with that tantalizing bit of information, he said bye to everyone and got back into his car.

 

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