By Daniel DeMarco |Features Editor|
Somehow The Roxy Theatre remained standing after September 10, 2014.
The Hollywood venue hosted live performances by opening act Carla Bozulich, and headlining band Swans.
Swans is a band so loud and so intense, it seems they could knock over buildings.
Their music could even be described as punishing, but it pulls you into a hypnotic state and becomes transcendental. You literally feel the music pounding on your body, and you feel it within yourself as your body moves with the swells and the violent explosions of sound.
People slowly began lining up an hour and a half before doors opened, and while I leaned against the outside wall, I could feel the vibrations on my back as the groups conducted their sound-checks.
Anyone with prior knowledge of Swans knows that ear protection is important; in fact, I bought special hi-fi earplugs for the occasion. People have been known to occasionally become disoriented and even faint at their shows.
At one point, a security worker walked out the front door, and from inside came a crash of distorted sound and a blood-curdling female scream, surely that of Bozulich.
My cousin, Jesse Rojas, and I looked at each other and smiled in a moment that didn’t need explanation. We knew this was going to be an extraordinary show.
A thirty minute time cushion was given for people to come in, buy drinks, and settle down to a spot in the venue before Bozulich began her set.
Bozulich played with two band-mates; a male who played percussion, keyboard, and a synthesizer, and another female who also played percussion but also played a steel saw with a violin bow.
Bozulich herself sang and played guitar, at times pulling out a toy microphone on a small toy-amplifier she would hold against her guitar pickups as she moaned and shrieked into it to produce sounds both beautiful and harrowing.
She played a 45 minute set. I had no previous experience with her music, but it sounded similar to old blues music with the raw emotions she put into the vocals.
The percussion felt tribal in its rhythm and synchronization and the soundscapes created by the keyboard, synthesizer and bowed-saw were highly atmospheric.
A 15 minute interlude followed as Bozulich’s equipment was taken off the stage, leaving behind Swans’ complicated array of instruments and equipment.
In those 15 minutes, the amount of attendees seemed to double. The floor in front of the stage became densely packed as people moved forward, hoping to get as close as possible.
First, Swans’ multi-instrumentalist, Thor Harris, came out at about 9:35 p.m and began playing the gong. He created a swell of sound that slowly grew over the course of about five minutes.
Phil Puleo, drummer, walked out and joined with a swell of cymbals.
And then appeared Christoph Hahn, lap steel guitarist, a few minutes later who also joined in on the swell of ever-growing sound.
I could see the musicians in the walkway before they came on stage. Each time a member walked out, they would get hugs from the other musicians as if they were wishing them luck before going out to battle.
About 10 to 15 minutes of growth passed since Harris started before the remaining members came out; Christopher Pravdica, bass player, Norman Westberg, guitar, and front man Michael Gira, who also played guitar.
Throughout the buildup, people around me hit their breaking point and put their earplugs in. One guy who was in front of me was unprepared and became so desperate that he pulled tissue out of his pocket and stuffed it in his ears for some inkling of relief.
The full intensity of Swans was realized the moment they all played in unison. The sound vibrates every little hair on your body, sending a tingling sensation across your skin. It rumbles through your bones.
The sound created onstage is a physical assault on your senses.
Their songs are massive in not only sound, but also scale. It is built on the repetition of undeniably groovy, yet basic, riffs, with periods of huge droning and ambience, all coming into a structure of plodding rises, explosive climaxes and dramatic falls to create songs of epic proportions that will range anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes.
My cousin, an audio mixing and tracking engineer, was pretty new to Swans and came to the show with an open mind to try something different.
Having experienced it, Rojas said, “After a minute or two, you can’t help but to submit to it. You almost fall in a meditative state and move with the massive sound literally pushing through you. It’s an experience with music that I believe is unparalleled.”
Gira is a throw-back to classic jazz band leaders. He stands center-stage giving cues to band mates as the songs progress using his arms, head, and sometimes his entire body.
Do not be fooled though; while Gira is a very professional front man, this does not stop him from becoming consumed with the music.
Much like the audience, Gira would become interlocked with the rhythms and lose himself in dance. His movement was frantic and eerie with wild swinging of his arms as the rest of his body grooved with the music.
His vocal performance could be just as frantic and eerie, ranging from guttural moans to ritualistic chants to horrifying shrieks over the top of the already unforgiving music.
The band is like a complex organism, the members all vital organs with Gira acting as the brain, giving signals and keeping control over the entire body to produce the life of Swans’ music.
Multiple times during the performance the climaxes would be so immense and loud that it felt even my specialty earplugs were being pushed to the limit, on the brink of implosion under the pressure of sound.
At one point, a young lady passed by me as she tried to get through the crowd, hanging on peoples’ shoulders to remain standing. Her face was almost blank and she looked on the verge of passing out.
In all, Swans played six songs. Their final composition was a combination of a song already released, “Bring The Sun,” and a new piece of material, “Black Hole Man.”
Their set ended spot on at midnight. Yes you read that correct, Swans played six songs in a two and a half hour performance. It was perhaps the shortest 150 minutes of my life.
I got home about two hours later, and once in the quiet of the house I noticed that my ears were rumbling, almost quivering. Even with the protection, my ears were experiencing some trauma that didn’t subside for another hour.
If it is not already apparent, Swans are not meant for casual listeners of music, they are not meant for someone looking for a nice night of entertainment.
What they have to offer though is certainly something special for those that would be attracted to the outlandish and limit-pushing.
Seeing Swans live is more than a show, it is a physical and mental experience. It is near-sonic obliteration to create something awe-inspiring and is, as my cousin says, “unparalleled.”