A Hawk and a Hacksaw, the Balkan band formed by Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes and violinist Heather Trost, will open for Swans on Oct. 17 at Respectable Street in West Palm Beach. The New Mexico duo, which plays mostly instrumentals influenced by traditional Eastern European music, most recently re-scored Russian director Sergio Paradjanov’s classic film Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors. Surrounded by an ever-evolving cast of musicians due to changes in world style, A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s most recent release, last year’s Cervantine, saw the band incorporate Greek music into their varied repertoire.
Swans, the shifting, shadowy collective birthed in early ’80s New York, is an act most often associated with discomfort of all kinds. Part of that is in content. The group’s 11 studio albums have covered everything from religious hypocrisy to nihilism to personal failure to death and decay. And the unease continues, often, sonically. The group is stylistically unclassifiable but has won fans of genres from free jazz to metal thanks to its unpredictable, ambling song structures, dissonance, and infamously ear-splitting volumes.
This is all the surface stuff though. What gets lost in all the mouth-foaming breathless talk of earplugs and obliquely terrifying lyrical fragments is that Swans is so much more than purposefully confrontational noise. It’s much smarter than that. The band’s frontman and driving force, Michael Gira, is an erudite art school grad who drops $10 words in passing and who’s penned his own collection of fiction, The Consumer.
Musically, much of Swans’ propulsive thrust is, at its heart, heavily influenced by pelvis-fueled classic blues filtered through a truly punk disregard for song structure, technique, or any other kind of trapping. Swans songs expand and contract, ranging from cacophony and almost industrial tribal rhythms to downright pretty parts. Yes, Swans wrote love songs, and devoted listeners have been rewarded with many tender moments across the group’s vast discography.
Still, the weight of Swans’ infamy lay heavily on Gira until he finally dissolved the band in 1997, abandoning it to perform with a new project, the more straightforward and stripped-down Angels of Light. Eventually, he reached an impasse with that too, struggling through a trying, depressing period of creative block.
Then, in a surprise move last year, Gira reformed Swans with a few longtime musical cohorts, including original Swans guitarist Norman Westberg, and notably without longtime Swans vocalist Jarboe. The result was a new studio album, My Father Will Guide me Up a Rope to the Sky, an energetic collection much more spiritually hopeful than earlier Swans output in every respect.