Scientists have theorized that there's a low-frequency sound wave that can cause a person to lose control of assorted bodily functions. At the Roxy on Sunday, the Swans came close to finding that sound. The New York septet pummeled its audience into submission with a steady, stark, sonic assault.
Playing music as slow as a slug crawling down a slimy wall, the Swans were about as much fun as watching gangrene set in. But fun isn't exactly what the Swans are all about.
With its two drummers interlocking with precise, goose-stepping stridency, the Swans were more metallic than heavy metal and could also be mistaken for one of the "industrial music" outfits. But top Swan M. Gira is concerned with physical, moral and psychic decay, not with machinery. Resembling the gaunt, haunted figure in Munch's painting "The Scream," Gira growled and prowled the stage, walking in circles and bellowing his awful truths about how human relationships are measured in degrees of emotional fascism.
Having existed on the outer fringe of the New York rock underground for five years, the Swans are as much performance art as they are a sound machine. Their music of cruelty is filled with silences as studied as the meaningful pauses in Japanese Noh theater, and their concentration, tension, hypnotic repetition and haunting intensity redefine white noise: In the Swans' world it's black noise for gray matter, music that is physical as well as visceral, a ritual of pain that left one drained.