Since reforming – or, perhaps more accurately, reincarnating – in 2010, Swans have rapidly become one of the most extraordinary musical entities of our age. Their comeback album, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, was a fine release, and they soon re-established themselves as a formidable live act. But with 2012’s The Seer – a vast, audacious, and stunningly wonderful double album – they scaled hitherto unconquered peaks, and matched that with a series of quite astonishing live shows which were about as close to holy communion as some of us are ever likely to get (see here for Jim Bliss’ review of one such gig in Dublin in 2013. I wasn’t there, but I saw them in both London and Brighton at around the same time, and Jim’s well-chosen words could equally have applied to either of those shows). Then earlier this year they released another magnificent double album, To Be Kind – it seemed almost inevitable that this would be a disappointment after the brilliance of The Seer, but miraculously it maintained that exalted standard, perhaps even improved on it. So anticipation was high for their return to London at the refurbished Brixton Electric (formerly The Fridge).
The crowd was surprisingly young, for an ‘old’ band, and, in keeping with the diktats of modern hip, collectively sported what must have been one of the largest collections of luxuriant facial hair ever assembled under one roof. Many were also wearing earplugs – the band’s predilection for pulverising volume having become the stuff of legend. Indeed most live reviews of Swans seem to focus on this, but while it is certainly a feature of their performance, it does them a significant disservice to talk only of the crushing weight of their sound, a point underscored by the low-key, initially almost imperceptible start of tonight’s recital: percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris standing alone at the back of the stage, coaxing a slowly gathering swell of sound from an array of gongs and cymbals, joined after several minutes by drummer Paul Puleo and lap-steel wizard Christoph Hahn, as little by little an infernal din began to take shape. The feel was that of embarking on a journey, the commencement of some electro-shamanic rite, as the remaining band members emerged, leader and elder statesman Michael Gira briefly acknowledging the cheers before getting down to business. A few more minutes of rising, churning atmospherics and building tension – then, BLAM, they were off, into something I didn’t recognise but which I subsequently discovered is an as yet unrecorded song called “Frankie M” (it’s a measure of Gira’s heroic disdain for the usual way of doing things that, even after two colossal double albums of new material in as many years, a significant proportion of tonight’s set was newer still).
The sound wasn’t, in fact, as physically punishing as the hype would have it – at least, not initially – but nevertheless it was massive, in the way that mountains and tundra and galaxies are massive – a huge, imposing multi-textured behemoth incorporating the familiar components of the rock band (guitar, bass, drums) but also an array of unorthodox instruments: over the course of the evening Thor Harris plays trombone, whistles and what looks like some sort of home-made electric violin in addition to his regular percussion rig, while the keening banshee wails, eerie music-box melodies and bursts of gibbering noise emitted by Hahn’s overdriven lap-steel are not just unfamiliar but quite possibly unique. If anyone else has ever used an effects-laden lap-steel guitar to summon the forces of the id in this manner, I admit that I missed it.
“Thank you so much,” says Gira in response to enthusiastic applause after “A Little God In My Hands,” before telling us “I want so badly to suck your cock.” He says this, of course, not in an impish ooh-aren’t-I-naughty way but rather with disarming sincerity, a simple statement of fact – apparently that’s just how he feels tonight. And with no need for further elaboration the band start the next song, which turns out to be “The Apostate,” my favourite track from The Seer and the only one from that album to get an airing tonight. Another slow-burning build-up leads into a juddering, squalling, rhythm monster with Gira’s shrieks of “Get out!” giving it the feel of an exorcism. It’s so remarkable that I find myself wondering, why doesn’t all music sound like this? Because, in fact, nobody else sounds like this. One can grasp at reference points: there are dirges and drones, echoes of some mutant industrial music; and tonight, more than in the past, there are propulsive, compulsive rhythms vaguely reminiscent of krautrock – but there really are no easy answers to the obvious question “what do they sound like?” beyond saying “they sound like Swans”. Most bands sound like versions of other bands – Swans are unimpeachably themselves. Their absolute confidence in this vast aural assemblage that sounds like nothing else on earth represents a collective act of enormous courage, and for all the talk of darkness and weight that usually accompanies any discussion of their muse, the fact is that it’s enormously, breathtakingly uplifting.They are, however, still at the mercy of mortal concerns, and there’s a short period where Norman Westberg’s guitar seems to have cut out, and one of the walls of sound sustaining the edifice briefly evaporates. Thankfully, it’s swiftly rectified, and the volume levels seem to increase still further. During “Don’t Go,” another new song, there’s a passage where most of the band stop playing and there is only strummed guitar and Gira’s voice – yet it’s quite extraordinarily loud, and when the rest of the band kick back in it’s like a wave of molten lava pouring out of the speakers to baptise the audience in thick bubbling fire. I feel a strange shearing inside my skull, a physical sensation I have literally never felt before. When the song finishes, it feels like the end of the show – surely they’ve given their all now, and maybe we have too. But no – this is Swans, and whatever reservoir of demonic/angelic energies they’re accessing, there’s more in the tank. They continue with the sandblasting monochord assault “Toussaint L’Ouverture” – this clocks in at a monstrous 34 minutes on To Be Kind, but they telescope it into something much shorter tonight: by now there’s simply no need to play it longer, any point that might conceivably be made by doing so having already been unarguably proven. It segues into “Black Hole Man,” the most conventionally structured song of the night, a triumphant noise-rock juggernaut that comes steaming through our collective ribcage. And then, finally, it’s over.
The acclaim is ecstatic, and the band members linger on stage for a while to soak it up and get their breath. Quite properly, there is no encore – such empty formulaic gestures have no place here tonight. Because this… this is for real.
2 June 2014
Right then. I’m going to start with my own personal bollocks because I think it’s important to get perspective right on these things. (And by ‘right’ I mean ‘narcissistic’, obviously). Swans’ revived live show has a pretty formidable reputation — justly, I’d say — but there are elements that irk me about it. First: ‘Unbelievably loud’. I imagine folk saying this never spent much time on the drum’n’ bass scene. Of course, if they did spend time at DnB nights, they were likely in the wrong state to remember quite how shredding the snares and basslines were (and probably still are, I’m just a bit old for dancing my balls off in darkened sweat-holes). Moreover, I’m pretty sure that Keiji Haino tends towards being more savage, volume-wise.Neurosis and all that). I’m pretty sure they weren’t ever fully committed to those axes (no wave/ metal) but there’s something in me that can’t help but see a pedal steel played in a non-conventional way and not take it as influenced by the slide-as-dissonance-generator of Glenn Branca, Mars, Sonic Youth and so on. Swans’ trajectory has been long and winding but there’s been consistency — repetition’s a big feature and a kind of brutalist dissonance too. There are bits this evening where I’m reminded of the kind of drilling, repetitious bass attack that Faust use – over and over with dissonant-ish intervals.
The ‘brutalist dissonance’ line is an important thing for me. In terms of live bands, I spend a lot of time watching noise, where dissonance is a pretty carefully deployed thing — lots of tight intervals and lots of careful choices (as few pure intervals as possible, or loads of stacked intervals). Elsewhere, we’ve got stuff from the avant-garde axis – Xenakis, always, but tone-clustery folk like Penderecki or Ligeti too. So when I say that Swans have a brutalist dissonance, I mean that it’s not that far into the brain-wilting intervals — mostly standard 7ths or 4ths. Fine, this is rock music, but it doesn’t quite make me feel queasy in the way I want. The general lack of developed modal work — it’s a tonic and an interval by and large — is amazing when it’s really drilled home on the longer songs (which puts them closest to someone like Faust in my mind-musical-map) but leaves me a little dissatisfied when it’s not sustained. And the rackety bits — the sections where they play ‘noise’ really aren’t that developed. The lap-steel of Christoph Hahn is pretty smart but often buried, and Norman Westberg isn’t the generator of the racket (he’s more of a slinky, supporting presence). Which means that you’ve got Gira basically sliding up and down in an octave-y shape. That’s fine, but it’s a pretty pugilistic way to generate noise — it’s light years away from metal but insufficient for a proper racket, in my eyes. I was speaking to a mate about this a couple of days ago, and he agreed — and the old rule of one person saying it makes it a prejudice, two makes it a cult abides here (or something — that sounded better in my head).
I’m well aware that this is more than a smidge unfair. I had a great night. Swans are an amazing live band. I just fall short of falling head over heels for them in the way that a lot of people do. It’d be ridiculous of me to suggest that they were in any way inadequate. They played for a million years and I didn’t at any point get shifty for a tab out the back. Gira’s a great performer, and the presence of mildly preposterous snake-charming hands is most welcome. Westberg is quite one of the smartest players I’ve seen for a while — some really impressive manual volume swells, really tight control of his axe and ostensibly keeping time by chewing gum. Phil Puleo holds the mainline of the drum down like he’s drowning snakes (firmly, and with no remorse) and Thor’s twatting drums with sticks that’d sink a lesser man. They’re an awesome band.
It’s just that they’re not playing Children of God. I love that record. Like, insanely so. The most perfect expression of old testament fury and confusion, agony and sufferance. Lyrically imperious, ambiguous, elliptical and opaque in just the right measure to GET the poetry of the old testament (something which never really worked for me, elsewhere, as a lyrical caprice). And modern Swans somehow lack that urgency. I think someone said after the gig that Gira was probably less of a well man during the ’80s and I suspect that’s true – while he’s clearly still fearsome/formidable, it’s more an act of confidence than borderline psychosis (the same borderline psychosis — or at least aesthetic occupation thereof — that empathises so completely with Abraham in my eyes).What’s wrong with Swans isn’t Swans, it’s the culture that surrounds them — ‘legendary’ ‘noise’ rock band; legends are always bastards, and the people writing about them doubly so (anyone who’s read my painfully fawning reviews of The Fall will be well aware of that). Swans aren’t very close to noise — closer than a lot of rock bands, but certainly no more severe than many. Strangely, the comparison that keeps coming back to me is Faust (the Zappi Faust). Grating, grinding, repetitious, but Swans are just lacking that degree of nuance to make me totally fall in love. The Haino comparison — it’s possible that this show was louder than the last few times I’ve seen Haino but Haino is all about utterly preposterous dynamics — massive swings from impeccably quiet to DRILLING HOLES IN THE UNIVERSE loud, all deftly delivered; Swans are more about the sway and wash of sounds, which is great but far too close to the turgid a-dynamic of post-rock; it’s only the basslines, the over-sustained drums, which hold it back from the post-rock abyss for me.
I’m still conflicted. If anyone asks, I’d say to go and see Swans because it is a seriously amazing live show. I’m just stopping short, cautious, because I’m convinced that this could (and has been) better.
-Words: Kev Nickells-
-Pictures: Al Robertson-