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Relentless rock band Swans flies in new music lands

| Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 6:08 p.m.
Howlin' Wuelf Media
Swans is led by Michael Gira (with cowboy hat).

“Loudest band on Earth.” “Apocalyptic.” “Confrontational.” “Uncomfortable.” “A test of endurance.”

Since 1982, Michael Gira's band Swans has relentlessly kicked at the boundaries and borders of music, pushing its way up to and past the unspoken limits of noise, volume and structure. Drawing influences from punk rock, neoclassical minimalism and the avant-garde art world, Swans did something incredibly rare in music — creating something completely new.

Though that sound has evolved a lot over the decades — especially in terms of dynamics, instrumentation and the use of melody — Swans still sounds like nothing else. And Michael Gira is still a fearsomely intelligent, irascible and intimidating presence. Swans will be in Pittsburgh for a rare performance June 14 at the Rex Theater.

Gira keeps relentlessly searching for something, musically speaking, that can only be found through extremes of concentration, study and physical exertion.

“The intended effect is ecstasy,” Gira says.

Volume and repetition are two of the routes he takes to get there, though they aren't the only ones.

“I think that's part of rock music really,” Gira says. “I guess our sound might be considered bigger or more all-consuming than other groups, but it really is about looking for a way to disappear inside something bigger than yourself.”

As for their sometime reputation as “the loudest band on Earth,” Gira isn't convinced.

“I don't know, I think we sound like the Monkees compared to Motorhead,” he says.

Gira, who's also a writer and visual artist, is a surprisingly good singer and songwriter, which tends to get lost amid all the roaring. He took a 13-year detour from Swans to lead the band Angels of Light, taking his darkly literate lyrics in a more folk/country/blues-type direction.

The latest Swans album, “The Seer,” shows some of this influence, like the quiet, reflective, piano-driven “Song for a Warrior,” with vocals by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O.

“I had written it, and thought I sounded like Kermit the Frog singing it,” Gira says. “It was kind of a pretty song, I guess, and it needed a more mellifluous voice — and probably a female, the way the words were written. ... I thought her voice was perfect. It's very poignant and sort of personal, when she sings in that context.”

There also are plenty of dense, difficult experimental pieces, and some that are just plain loud. Gira is still into extreme volume, even after all these years.

“Well, the physicality of it, when guitars are amplified loud, particularly when there's open tuning involved, there's lots of these heavenly overtones that you wouldn't experience at a quieter volume. It's almost like hearing a church choir singing, at times.”

Odd as it sounds, just about every Swans song starts with acoustic guitar.

“I'll have a finished song, or a groove or rhythm that I've written on acoustic guitar, then I'll start working with the band, and we develop it,” Gira says. “I definitely crave/want/solicit their input. I just kind of guide things. A lot of times, we'll take something that's in no way ‘finished' as a song, and play it in front of an audience. And just kind of force ourselves to perform it.”

All the songs pretty much end the same way — onstage, with Gira directing, chastising, urging his band onward to scale the heights of sound, like a James Brown of noise.

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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