Live review: Swans at the El Rey Theatre

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My first mistake Wednesday night was presuming that Swans, the semi-legendary New York post-punk band recently re-formed by frontman Michael Gira, would turn up at the El Rey Theatre in a form somehow diminished from its brutal mid-’80s peak, when the group put out a punishing live album called “Public Castration Is a Good Idea.”

My second (and more serious) mistake was not wearing earplugs.

Last year, Swans, who rose from the same New York scene that spawned Sonic Youth in the early 1980s, released “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky,” its first studio disc since 1996. Given Gira’s earlier pronouncements on the unlikelihood of a Swans reunion, the album’s appearance came as something of a surprise to his fans, who over the last decade have followed the artist’s work under his own name and with a new outfit, Angels of Light. Gira also runs the indie label Young God Records, whose breakout star, Devendra Banhart, opened Wednesday’s show.

“My Father” upends musical expectations, too: It’s loud and vaguely terrifying, of course, but it’s no less beautiful, with pastoral acoustic passages and a good deal of bell and vibraphone work by Thor Harris, one of Gira’s current bandmates. (Other players in the new six-piece Swans lineup include guitarist Norman Westberg and drummer Phil Puleo; all have experience collaborating with Gira in various projects.)


The beauty comes not only from the quieter bits, though. Where Swans’ love of noise used to transmit grim ideas about abuse and subjugation, here it takes on a purifying quality, as in the album’s revealingly titled opener, “No Words/No Thoughts.” Swans began Wednesday’s 100-minute set with that song, and the effect was oddly welcoming, as though Gira were making room inside the music for the troubles of anyone who cared to put them there. Later, in the new record’s “My Birth,” he sang, “I’ll swallow your sorrow and I’ll inhale your fear,” a much more generous offer than longtime Swans fans might have might’ve anticipated.

This adjustment in approach didn’t result in a decreased level of intensity. Even as the band hinted at a kind of blues-funk swing in “Jim,” it played loudly enough to make you wonder how recently the El Rey’s ornate chandeliers had been inspected. And material from the bad old days — such as “Sex, God, Sex,” during which Gira delivered a lengthy invocation to Jesus Christ — sounded as obsessive as it ever has.
But throughout the show you got a sense that Gira, the career self-flagellator, had finally reached a more serene plane of existence. “It’s good to be in L.A.,” he said toward the end, referring to the city in which he was born and spent much of his youth. “I hate this place. I’m really glad I moved out.”

-- Mikael Wood