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Swans (live at l’Epicerie Moderne)

27 March 2013

Michael Gira of Swans Lyon March 2013The advantage of seeing Swans play at a relatively small venue like l’Epicerie Moderne over, say, one of the larger auditoriums in a bigger city (or one with a more active fanbase) like Paris or New York is that the experience is a little more intimate than when the gig is held in a very big room with not as much chance of seeing the band themselves. Actually, it usually is possible, by daring to approach the massive speaker stacks and taking a long-term risk to the hearing, but here the venue is not so huge and for that matter, not so crowded.

“To be kind, to be real”

Once the band have entered to enthusiastic applause, they set about constructing a curtain wall of sound, Michael Gira‘s semi-acoustic guitar sending out the overtones while the rest of the band hold and sustain an enveloping noise bath, counterpointed by Thor Harris‘ drone clarinet.

Soon Norman Westberg starts chopping out his signature riffs – the kind that have subsequently become familiar from a thousand technical metal bands’ start-stop grinds, but here delivered with altogether more malignant, less muso, effect – and Gira demands, almost conversationally, “put the knife in me.” It’s thoroughly believable at this instant that he might actually like it, need it even; to be eviscerated out of the misery of the world, just as Swans perform the audio equivalent of none-too gentle open-brain surgery on the audience, pounded mercilessly into the collective skull by the massive one-two combination attack of double-drummer thud and triple-teamed riff of “Coward”.

Christoph Hahn of Swans Lyon March 2013

“Sleep in the belly of reason, sleep in the belly of love”

Now Gira switches to the role of psychopathic tormentor, almost sneering his disdain for the victim and expressing murderous contempt for their resistance. His voice echoes into violent incomprehension, his ire rising passionately to match the sustained aggression of the music. Even when he deploys a barrage of “Sha la las,” they act as a sardonic counter to the scalding noise in which the band, audience and auditorium is by now thoroughly immersed.

While the sound is exemplary in its clarity and the PA more than decent in size, the volume is merely extremely loud, rather than bowel-churning in density. Perhaps this is where somewhere like Koko in London has the advantage, as the experience of witnessing Swans there is truly a visceral one when internal organs rumble under the sheer weight of bass. Tonight the liver and kidneys are reasonably safe, and while ears take a pummelling, there’s no real need for the Hein?-packaged plugs distributed at the door.

Thor Harris of Swans, Lyon March 2013

“I am no-one”

Blistering sustained drum rolls and Thor on the ‘bone introduce yet more crushing waves of sound, and by the middle section the trombone has become a veritable siren swaying among the wall-to-wall smear of delay and distortion in which Swans are now revelling. SUNNO))) have already demonstrated the drone benefits of trombones, and Thor here ably melts his into the same kind of monstrous melange of rhythm and amplified primal howl which Faust – in whichever incarnation – can summon on stage. Swans are determined, relentless in the execution of their mission to overwhelm. “Come to my house,” sings Gira, prompting speculation as to whether the carpeting might be dense enough to keep the volume in – and the bloodstains soaked up. “Come to my tongue,” he invites, and Swans break through to another side which Jim Morrison could only have found at the darker end of his worst narcissistic nightmares.

With Swans live it is all about being absorbed into the whole of the band, to be swept up by their machinations and wiles, not to be seduced solely by a front-man or to fit them neatly into a scene. Gira is their spokesman, their conductor and even sometimes charismatic dictator, but he is more than capable of holding an audience in thrall on his own. He gesticulates, gestures commands, sashays and sways, forms his body into the shape of a cross, or a plane; asks for the house lights to be brightened so he can see and sense the crowd before him. Here he is the focus for sure, but in front of this band he is not the whole, not the ego but the id. Gira takes on the mantle of shamanic, votive celebrant, the sometimes psychopathic human voice among the crushing swathes of sound which ever increase and always, always dominate both audience, and it must be said, the band themselves. Collectively, Swans don’t seem so much to be playing the music – to be sure, each individual is giving their all – as channelling a higher purpose at volumes only a Titan (or Norse god) could endure.

Michael Gira of Swans, Lyon March 2013

“No words, no thoughts”

Is there any other reasonable response to the end of noise, when it comes, than rapture? Comes a sudden pause, and Gira gyrates and writhes in silence, before the all-consuming fire kicks back in, the return of the repressed boiling over with an elemental vengeance. When Thor chimes in at the tubular bells, it is at once both melodic and hypnotic in its repetition, each bright percussion reverberating within the greater Swans cacophony. Chris Pravdica pounds on the bass strings with his fist, the low end resonating through the floor in a swollen surge of orgone accumulation. Just as Coil often aimed to summon male sexual energy through their music, Swans, post-Jarboe, are now a very masculine band without needing to hide behind cock-rock machismo. Their performance is not so much theatrical as ritual, bringing the audience into their circle and expanding on the true meaning of being in concert.

Michael Gira of Swans Lyon, March 2013“I seen it all” chants Michael Gira, and if there is anyone who has, maybe it’s him, here and now on this stage, in this place, with these people, at this time, neverendless. Do Swans sound like a primal black (w)hole sun, a Tantric whorl spiralling into the nameless, unheimlich womb of eternity? Is the universe encapsulated in the spasm onstage, held and released into the electrical crackle of an overdriven amplifier in the process of abandoning everything to abject, blissful surrender? Within the excoriation of cymbals under pressure in a lengthy paroxysms of the extended almost Platonic notion of what constitutes a rock’n’roll finale? For now, it seems like maybe it is, as repetition is taken to extremes on resurgent waves.


It is only once the tubular bells announce that the long drawn-out conclusion of the piece has begun is there any sense that release – desired or otherwise, pleaded for or endured – is in sight. (Re)capitulation comes as Gira’s harmonica shreds a signal for the fall from that elevated place where there are indeed no words, nor thoughts to form them, a pandæmonium of chiming bells and brazen whistles. Michael Gira screams “TOUSSAINT… L’OUVERTURE! LIBERTÉ! EGALITÉ! FRATERNITÉ!,” his voice filling the hall immensely in honour of the great liberator, leader of the Haitian slave revolution who slew their masters. “VIDA ES SANGRE… AMORE SANGRE!” he snarls, making throat-cutting and blood-flowing gestures to his neck. This is at a polar extreme to the character who spoke in former Swans songs of crawling and raping a slave; Gira and his band now the annihilators of oppression and exsanguinators of sound.

Swans have truly released themselves and their astounded throng from enslavement to the rhythm through the sheer power of excoriating noise, obliterating all that stands in their path and leaving nothing unturned, no body unstirred; and afterwards it seems like everything has changed in their wake.

-Richard Fontenoy-

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