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CONCERT REVIEW: Swans @ Union Transfer

Photo by PETE TROSHAK

In Paradise Lost Milton wrote “Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light.” If good ol’ Uncle Milty were alive today, he undoubtedly would’ve been rocking a Swans T-shirt at the Union Transfer on Saturday night. Playing to a packed house of believers who hung on every note, Swans shepherded a fearless crowd through a nearly two and a half hour journey up from the underworld and into the light  – only their version of paradise isn’t scored with the gentle sound of harps and the flutter of angel wings, it’s more like the sound of a thousand hammers striking a thousand anvils. Their distinctive brand of droning ambient heaviosity thrives on tension and release with each song building to a spiritual- and eardrum-shattering climax. Swans mainman Michael Gira chanted and barked, seemingly howling to the heavens and any deity of up there that might listen,  while the five other Swans – all dangerous-looking men –  kept the journey loud and turbulent. The percussion section, complete with gong and tubular bells, was particularly impressive, laying down rumbling, primal rhythms that shook the very foundations of the listener’s sanity. Dressed in black and beating the living hell out of a taped and battle scarred Gibson Lucille guitar, Gira was a force of nature, exhorting  the crowd and admonishing  his band, sometimes waving his hands like an orchestra conductor, and frequently yelling out into space or at his band members – with the bass player receiving most of his ire on this night. The setlist was anchored by three long songs from the new and highly-acclaimed The Seer – early on “Avatar”, in the middle “The Seer” and late in the set “The Apostate” – all long movements that displayed the push and pull dynamics, raw power and soul crushing ability of a band at peak form. Early arrivers buzzed about ancient Swans mythology while waiting in line – stories about Gira stripping while playing or forcing venues to turn off the A.C. to make the crowd uncomfortable and their pitiless pursuit of the dubious distinction of  being the loudest band on the planet. Saturday night, Gira seemed to have mellowed somewhat — he  kept his clothes on and the temperature was fine. As for the volume level, well, consider this: right around the time the band would’ve been soundchecking a trusty old water main burst in Center City Philadelphia. Coincidence? There are no coincidences when the Swans are around. – PETE TROSHAK

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