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Swans (live at The Marble Factory)

Bristol
20 May 2015

Swans live at The Marble FactorySadly, I only caught the end of Okkyung Lee’s set — a real pity as that scraping reverberation of cello was curving some lovely tonal mirages. It wasn’t long before the Swans gradually graced the stage (sometime around 8.37pm). First Thor Harris, who brewed a lovely metallic warble from his massive gong, a sound that sizzled excitingly in the ear. Phil Puleo joined him, affixing rattling metal and falling salvage to the hypothermic fray. The clatter brought on fond memories of Coil’s “How To Destroy Angels”, but here it was more oceanic – vast, a rolling rise and fall of shingle-caught sibilance to be savoured.

With the appearance of Christoph Hahn, things were thrown into more acidic directions, his lap steel full of serrating mirages, a panoramic roar of a football stadium that heralded the remaining band members onto the stage, Michael Gira adding Indian bells to the sibilant claws as the guitar surround circled a fixed stare. Bloody hell, they’d only just started and my ears were already hurting! Quite a din indeed, Gira all crucifixion arms, his sandpapery vocals throwing out the thorny delights, Christopher Pravdica’s bassline locked with Norman Westberg‘s wasps. An insistent over-wroughtness that all of a sudden materialised into the first song of the night, something I’m foolishly labelling as “Frankie Yo”*, Gira’s wordplay torch-lighting your mind with the usual poetic contradictions.

Swans live at The Marble Factory

Now things got a bit hazy from here on in — I was enjoying it all too much, to be honest; after all Swans have always been something you can easily lose yourself into — but sometime later the one of the few album tunes I recognised of the evening happened, “A Little God In Your Hands’, Gira’s voice a deep booming presence riding high above a rather excellent traffic jam holler and chunky basslined vibe. A muscled funk wigging out into a cacophony of razored edges that drove the crowd mental, the framework of the song periodically lost to a tidal wave of atonality, leaving your head ransacked by clubfooted criminals with Thor’s elephantine smears of trombone wailing on through for good measure, and Gira exclaiming post-song, “My first band was in ‘78 — I’d never thought I would see people pogoing again.”

As with previous excursions, they were happily brewing up the new juju — a Seer-like insistence filled with slanting daggers and withering satellites, there was notably less jumping about than before; maybe the stage was too cramped, and everything felt weirdly more focused/less sprawling. Gira was still very much directing the show, nursing the calming wakes, carefully choreographing everything and encouraging the cantankerous with waving arms and gritted teeth, even leaking a few smiles. Facing off with Hahn, encouraging him to spill more vitriolics, duelling with the bassist in an intense dogfight of excess that had my bag shaking as if it were over-spilling with angry termites. Honestly, I must have seen them about five times in recent years and this was definitely the best — if the next album touches on any of this, it’s definitely set to eclipse To Be Kind.

Swans live at The Marble Factory -3

Later a twilight of jangly and humming contours set some contrasting verve to the proceedings, Gira monkishly chanting into the meditative slink, before things quickly vaporised into an unholy unison of vicious slams and pile-driven rainbows knotting your head, subjugating you to blindly nod along like an automaton caught in its whirring gears. Bloody superb! Gira pouring forth his words in a gnarly hedgerow of snarling guitar (Westie’s minimal action/maximum yield paying massive dividends), shaping into something I quickly recognised as “Black hole (arsehole) Man”. Hahn’s lap steel was see-sawing the zinging jigsaw like a marauding power tool, cutting into a bass that was almost percussive in the din.

Finally, the whole caboodle descended into a feedback fest of sonic hummingbirds that sent plumes of blue smoke out of Pravdica’s amp and succinctly ended the performance at a rather symmetrical 11:11. As live bands go, Swans take some beating.

-Michael Rodham-Heaps-

*NB: “Frankie M” is the correct title, in case anyone was wondering.

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