Rock Music as a Religious Experience

“I see it all, I see it all

I see it all, I see it all”-Swans- The Seer


I recently went to see the band Swans play live, and although I’d seen them several times before, I was struck by the power of their performance, emotionally and certainly physically.

The band has a reputation for volume that precedes them at every turn. It is warranted, but it might also be the least interesting aspect of their performance; as I see it, the volume is simply a tool. A tool by which the spiritual aspirations of the music becomes readily apparent.

Although in interviews Michael Gira, Swans guitarist, singer and frontman, is quick to temper the religious or spiritual intent of the music with the claim that it’s “only rock ‘n’ roll” (or something to that effect); perhaps out of fear of seeming self-indulgent or boring, or simply out of touch, I think it’s an apt description. The music is vast. It is expansive, rich with texture. Compelling. And yes, it is loud.

Gira has an incredible stage presence, and acts as conductor as much as guitarist or singer. He raises or lowers his out-stretched arms to indicate higher or lower volume or intensity from his bandmates. He jumps up and down to indicate impact. He slaps himself repeatedly in the face. And he pushes his fellow Swans onward, pushes them to keep going,

Norman Westberg (the longest-serving Swan after Gira) creates beautifully strange guitar sounds, Christopher Pravdica’s basslines are incredible and newcomer Paul Wallfisch adds tremendously with his keyboards and organ, as well as what can best be described as electronic sheets of noise.


What Swans’ music manages to do, at its best, is something few other, if any, contemporary bands achieve. Only the Japanese group Boredoms do something which is remotely comparable. It creates a sound to lose oneself in, something truly bigger than yourself. Something at once awe-inspiring and monstrous, and at the same time something distinctly human.

“Through a door in the air

on a crumbling stair

in a clear and rushing vein

in a tunnel full of rain

in a piece of yellow light

on the skin of my eye

Are you there?-Swans- A Piece of the Sky

I recommend highly that you go see them perform if you have the chance. But do it quickly, before they cease to be, and finally get their peace.

“I know I’ll never die,

I scream up at the sky: “You have arrived!”-Swans- The Seer Returns


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