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Post-punk legends Swans return with a terrific new album

A lot of formerly underground rock bands are making money by lurching back onto the scene, playing old songs and sometimes entire old albums for fans. Swans won't have any part of that.

According to frontman Michael Gira, "99 percent" of his band's back catalog will never be heard again. "We're doing one [old] song now," he says. "But it's in vastly different form." Instead, Swans are playing cuts from last year's excellent My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky and some newer songs the group wrote for an upcoming album. Despite the fact that Gira documented the band's 1997 farewell tour on Swans Are Dead, the band is very much alive these days.

For much of the '80s, the New York City band was crushingly heavy and painfully loud, intent on punishing its audience. But gradually, beginning with 1987's Children of God, goth and psychedelic elements started entering their music, and a softer side began to emerge. By the time the group disbanded in 1997, they were experimenting with tape loops and near-ambient washes of sound, even if Gira's lyrics remained excoriating and even cruel at times. It was a natural transition to the much quieter, more introspective sound of his next group, Angels of Light.

Gira reactivated Swans last year. Only a few members from the old days are back, including guitarists Norman Westberg and Christoph Hahn, and Phil Puleo, who played drums on the final tour. "I contacted very specific people," says Gira. "They were people I could imagine spending lots of time with, and also people I thought would contribute something musically, as well as just their personality would contribute to it."

Personality is crucial to Gira's conception, since Swans radically revamp their songs onstage, turning them into endless roaring explorations of a single riff or even a single chord. Gira believes this relentlessness — which has always been a hallmark of the band's style, no matter how loudly or quietly they play — "provides the ability to lose yourself in something bigger than yourself, rather than getting lost in details or lots of changes in a song or chord changes." He compares the experience to Jimmy Stewart falling down an endless spiral in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. That's a good thing.

My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky is Swans' first album in 13 years, and it's just as incantatory as psychedelic-era Swans classics like Children of God or White Light From the Mouth of Infinity, with moments of great beauty driving it.

But live, Gira offers, "the music should just obliterate. It's kind of a spiritual pursuit in a way, trying to just erase time. The concerts just keep stretching and growing and crescendoing and building and building and building. It's an ordeal. But to me and the audience, it's a very gratifying one."

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More by Phil Freeman

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