Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Swans, Bela Tar @ Barby Club

It's odd that I listened to Beef Terminal for the first time in a couple of years during the same week that I caught a live set from Bela Tar. Lots of people see the "solo guitarist with sampler" semi-genre as a gimmick that gets tired quickly, endlessly recycling the same ideas owing to it's admittedly restrictive basic structure. But I'm not one of those people. The vocals were the garden variety "breathy female shoegaze" type, but I gather that the Cure and all the Cure fans currently playing in bands might be wanting to talk to her about stealing a few riffs.

I'd only heard a couple of Swans albums before last year's comeback record, "My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky", but my excitement leading up to this gig was way out of proportion with my familiarity with their music. They're one of those revered underground bands about whom nobody has a bad word to say. I only found out who they were around 2004, long after they'd split up, and everything I heard about them only reinforced the feeling that I'd missed out. According to just about everyone, they pulled off beautiful/ugly better than anyone ever had, and were one of the loudest (many people unequivocally stated they were THE loudest) bands ever to boot. At the very least, I missed out on the MBV reunion and could get some of the same kicks via Swans. To say that they didn't disappoint couldn't be any more of an understatement, because I can't remember the last time I saw a concert this good. Great concerts are nothing like great albums in that you know immediately that you're seeing a pantheon-level show, it doesn't need time to grow on you. This was an all-time great show, on the shortlist among the best seven or eight I've ever seen.

Plenty of bands file on stage one by one, picking up their instruments, steadily building the anticipation in the crowd until the singer finally appears, and the gig formally begins. In that regard, nothing can touch what Swans did last night, opening with five minutes of drone followed by double barrel chimes and vibraphone, ringing and humming through a near infinity of shapes and tones, followed by enough bass to make your digestion proceed 5x quicker, and by the way, only half of the band was on stage at this point. This was all part of the twenty minute intro (yes, intro) to the opener from their last album, "No Words No Thoughts", which finally exploded into a volcano of noise once the entire sextet were on stage, attacking their instruments as violently as any band I've ever seen. There is nothing, nothing -- and I mean this in the nicest way possible -- better than surly old guys making a shitload of noise. At this point, I'd already gotten my money's worth and could have left happy, so the next hour and a half was something of a bonus. A bonus that takes a show from being merely great, to all-time great. Sometimes more is more.

Michael Gira turns the levels on his microphone way, way up so that somehow, you can almost always make out the words above the din. He plays the sick preacher role well, but singing is a very specialized activity at a Swans show, punctuating the beginning and end of a furious onslaught of percussion. They play the bulk of "My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky", but the record is fairly tame next to the infernal roar that becomes of these songs when they play live.

In Toronto, screaming and heckling is almost always tolerated at gigs. No matter what kind of crazy stuff the person says, everyone can laugh off his yelling as the rambling of just another drunk idiot. But in everyday life, you can't argue about anything without being out of line. In Tel Aviv it's the opposite -- people argue and scream about the dumbest stuff all the time, but if you yell something at a gig, everyone feels a collective embarrassment, as if we're creating a bad impression of the city in front of the guests of honour. Tonight's stooge yells requests for older songs, and doesn't stop until Gira cuts him off with "I'm not your fucking clown, man. We play what we play." And what about the "old stuff"? How could it have possibly been any better than what we heard, anyway?


Leee said...

Ok, so as a similar-minded (similar-eared?) listener who has never gotten around to giving Swans a deeper listen, where do you suggest I pick up the slack?

Barry said...

I guess you can't go wrong with their most recent album, since it was pretty much universally praised by people who are a lot more knowledgeable about Swans than I am.