I entered Outland last night knowing very little about Swans beyond what you'd read in a Wikipedia entry, having heard only their recent release "My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky" and none of the works that made them an iconic name in dark, heavy music throughout the 80s and 90s. I knew it would be exceptionally loud, and based on a tip from a friend who saw the reconstituted band earlier on this tour, I knew it would begin with an ominous drone that would last minutes upon minutes before anything rhythmic entered the picture.
So I can't tell you whether the musicians on stage with Michael Gira were longtime cohorts or hired guns, and I can't tell you whether they played any "classics". But I can tell you Swans rendered me speechless from the moment that drone commenced.
It endured for about 10 minutes before the percussionist returned to add vibes to the mix. Another dozen minutes or so ticked away before the rest of the band strolled on stage to add more atmospherics. Finally, after nearly half an hour, they launched into the first of many crushing blows, a series of sonic jabs and slobberknockers that left no doubt about what kind of beast we were dealing with.
They carried on for nearly 90 minutes more, one monolithic bludgeoning after another, each a testament to Gira's unique ability to draw beauty out of despair. Gira lent haunting vocals to many of the songs, but his anger and misanthropy was almost redundant in the face of such bitterly sneering music.
It was often hypnotic. The best moments, though, were when Swans' entrancing bombardments erupted into big, dumb climaxes of noise. I know this band doesn't believe in God, but their thunderous doom ballads play like the sound of terrible, beautiful divine judgment.