Staff Pick: Swans’ grueling post-rock will send you reeling

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From the July 18, 2013 edition

The iPhone ringtone “Ascending” is a whimsical series of marimba notes that rise in pitch and intensity for about four seconds. It’s the kind of sound you expect to hear when a hyperactive cartoon character with a cantankerous giggle enters the frame, not when you’re audio Skyping with the man who conceived the grueling powerhouse post-rock project Swans.

But that’s Michael Gira’s ringtone, and it keeps reverberating throughout his Woodstock home while we discuss his band’s past, present and future — a future that includes a visit to The Bluestone this Wednesday with openers Pharmakon and The Unholy Two.

The zany iPhone soundbite seems like such a strange fit because over the past 31 years, Swans has developed a reputation as a bit of a downer. You’ll have that when your band plays bracing, blistering, brutally frank music, but Gira said such a negative interpretation misses the mark.

“I never thought it was dark,” Gira said. “I mean, certainly it was intense. But I didn’t set out to be dark. I mean, what a horrible thing. Certain art, of course, has dark elements in it, but it’s also beautiful and uplifting.”

He’s right. Swans’ show at Outland in 2011 — the band’s first appearance in Columbus since Gira revived the Swans identity after a dozen years fronting the experimental folk project Angels of Light — was one transcendent walloping. Subtly tweaked repetitions spiraled into combustive sonic violence, the kind of bombast that mesmerizes before sending you reeling.

Back then the band was supporting comeback album My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, but given how rapidly Swans’ live show evolves, it’s possible it played a good chunk of 2012’s sonically and spiritually weighty double-LP The Seer. By now the group is on to almost all unreleased material, though a mutated version of ’s 30-minute title track is still in the mix.

“I don’t want to be some band going out just promoting their album,” Gira said. “I want to make a true experience happen. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some groups can do it well. I’m just kind of beyond all that stuff. I don’t even look at an album as a finished thing anymore. It’s just a picture of how things ended up at that time. Of course I work diligently on making the album as well-honed as possible, but once it’s done, it’s just kind of dead matter to me. I’m more interested in the moment.”