Having launched their assaultive career in 1982, the Swans are something of an institution in the world of dark, confrontational rock. But while such progeny as Nine Inch Nails and less bleak colleagues as Sonic Youth flirt with the masses, the New Yorkers remain on the cult fringe, a taken-for-granted and--to judge by their show at the Roxy on Thursday--undervalued presence.
Without flamboyance or posturing, the group simply laid out its music with integrity and gripping intensity. Leader Michael Gira (whose roots are in the late-'70s L.A. punk scene, where he published the infamous No magazine), sang in a deep, detached deadpan that suggested improbable links with Johnny Cash (no stranger to music of dread himself). His partner Jarboe offered female counterpoint on her solo turns.
The Swans have long since moved on from their original cacophonous approach, finding a way to explore landscapes of pain and despair in fuller, richer settings. There were moments Thursday when the band used terse, unison riffs and relentless repetition as a bludgeon, but more often it expanded into richly textured arrangements of haunting resonance.
They offered a sense of beauty brought down, of the life force pulled into dark corners and put to the test. The show's closing passage, in which all five musicians massed in a bolero of mad, endlessly mounting power, symbolized a liberating impulse that belies the stereotype of the Swans as art-rock nihilists.