About an hour into the Swans' concert at the Valarium last night, a friend leaned over and told me he was leaving soon--he was worried about his hearing, a reasonable concern. One more song, he said. I quickly realized that the song he was staying for was the 30-minute title track from the band's new album, The Seer.
The show--an unlikely and well-attended triumph for Knoxville, hosted by Pilot Light owner Jason Boardman at the big warehouse club on the outskirts of downtown--was like a Frankenstein's monster of a rock performance, pieced together from the connective tissue of rock songwriting: crescendoes and codas and breakdowns, lengthy one- or two-chord jams, drum fills, and cymbal crashes, embellished with xylophone, steel guitar, e-bow, gong hits, and frontman Michael Gira's incantatory vocals. Much of what the Swans do--the repetition, patient build-up, and gradual accumulation of sheer volume--is inspired by minimalism, but there's nothing minimalist about their music. The Seer is a piece of monumentalist art; a friend described last night's show as the aural equivalent of a Rothko painting. It's fitting that so much of the music from the show felt like the grand finale for most other bands; Swans' music sounds like the last music in the world, as if whatever ambitions and anxieties first stirred the human heart to make music had been satisfied.