15 November 2012
Following their new album, The Seer, Swans first live performance in London for two years was genuinely eagerly awaited. The second album from the ‘reactivated’ Swans had shown that despite, or indeed because of, the long break they were still capable of producing innovative music that defies comparison with any of their contemporaries. Swans reputation as live performers goes before them, and a performance including material from the demanding and yet uplifting new album held the promise of being a particularly special event.
I have never been to a gig with such a palpable sense of anticipation. Every corner and balcony at Koko was packed and the nervous excitement of the crowd communicated an intense expectation of a spiritual experience, rather than just a gig. Sir Richard Bishop’s low key but powerful warm up set the bar high and served to crank up the energy further.If you were not familiar with Swans, and were to describe a gig where the band played tubular bells, a xylophone, gongs, a dulcimer, oboe, electric violin, slide guitars, two drum kits as well as the usual two guitars and a bass in front of a Berlin Wall of amps and cabs, you might imagine that gig to be some kind of Wakemanesque wankfest. But this is Swans. Their commitment to their music is total, and their music is huge. It requires a relentless collective energy and focus from the whole band to perform. There is no room for individual expression in the performance – the aggregate noise is everything.
And their set began with incredible scale and power from the outset. They kicked off with two currently unrecorded tracks, “To be Kind” and “She loves Us,” which fitted well either side of “Avatar” from the album. In “She Loves Us,” Michael Gira shows how much fire he still has in his belly. This comes across both in the restrained and yet visceral vocals which he deploys sparingly and in the way that he conducts the band. His physical presence as he coaxes his band fizzes with contained power which spills over in moments of irrepressible passion.Given the way in which the Swans music does not conform to traditional song structures, and progresses in a way that is more akin to jazz, it is striking how what at times seems like a chaotic arrangement designed to produce a cacophony is actually underpinned by incredible precision. Gira really does conduct to ensure that the immense cooperative focus and effort of the band produces exactly the intended impact. This band is not tight – they perform in a heightened state of super tension.
“Avatar” rolled out on a perpetual wave of tubular bells played by Thor Harris that gives the track both its driving energy and magical stirring quality. Then as they shifted into the new album’s title track the intensity just grew and grew. It was the aural equivalent of sticking your head out of a car window at 100 miles an hour. At this point they were only two thirds of the way through their set and this level of ferocity felt unsustainable for band and audience alike.As well as the exacting and formidable quality of their performance requiring incredible mental and physical effort on the part of the band, it also demands a lot of the audience as well. People fainted. But for the majority of that audience there was total willingness to immerse themselves in the noise that was joyous and monstrous in equal measure. Some have described the Swans live experience as nihilistic; however, while seeing them live is certainly exhilarating and cathartic, I found that the impact of their gargantuan sound on me was more uplifting.
Segueing into another new track – “Nathalie” – the energy dropped and it felt like may be the power was ebbing away as the viscerality of their playing took its toll. However, this was a just temporary lull, as Kristof Hanh played the opening notes of “The Apostate” they ramped it up another notch. The glorious fury of their closing track provided an awesome aural sandblasting that cleansed away any remnants of ephemera. Phil Puelo wringing out the final volleys of arrhythmic staccato bass drum that closes “The Apostate” was a fitting culmination.
There was a strong sense of shared experience at the end of the gig, and not just because so many friends were in the audience. Everyone knew they had witnessed something special. Swans’ performance of their music was epic in scale and colossal in impact. It was a privilege to have experienced it.