Thirteen years after singer Michael Gira split the flock, they arrived back in front of British audiences that, like tonight’s, are palpably apprehensive of the band’s past reputation for fearsome, ear-perforating, vomit-inducingly loud live performances. Swans were one of the few bands who, when they took the stage, rather than run forward toward them, the audience stepped back.
Here in a worryingly small, dark, subterranean venue - with little chance to escape the sonic shrapnel or the collateral - Swans return to the fray begins with a loud wavering drone of an open chord that lasts (I swear) a solid fifteen minutes, nothing but the wavering drone, until a man emerges from the wings (’tis Thor), picks up a hammer in each hand and begins battering out chimes on suspended tubular bells. Now we are all trapped in the cellar of an English church being dive-bombed by Stukas.
By now there is such genuine trepidation in the crowd that when five other figures appear and take the stage, something happens that I’ve never before seen at a gig - nothing. No one appears to applaud.
The Band’s physical appearance does not go one inch to engendering any band/audience bonhomie. They are, variously, pock-marked, greasy-haired, bearded, balding, craggy, moustachioed, snake-tattooed, self-possessed, immutable, mute, aware, aloof and dangerously alert. In other words, magnificently real. The very antithesis of a coy Boy Band: a big Man Band.
Into the drone one of them sets off a single note so loud and so low, and so terrifyingly loud and low, that it manifests itself as a physical tremor through the body, buffeting my eardrums until they tickle. Instinctively, and laughably, I do the Swans Two-step, and back away from the noise. As if this might limit any damage. When really I’d need to do something like the forty-two-step: back up three flights of stairs, through the foyer and back out into Leeds side streets that we slid down, just to reduce the Swans intro to a deadened but still piercing thrum.
Across the top and directly into the drone, and through the hammered bells, and the low and loud siren moan four men with electric guitars and two drummers lean into the howling noise and begin setting off detonations of sound that reverberate into the chest cavity and turn your heart into a wet plum tossed into tin of acid. You can’t help but take another step back.
We can only dream that this is pumped 24-hours a day into all the rooms in Simon Cowell’s house, until the stumpy-legged bean counter’s heart rips itself free of its arteries and makes a terrified dash for his rectum.
And it’s loud. Large shards of noise break free like enormous and fissured chunks of black ice, and fall with exponential speed right into you. The sound doesn’t so much roll over you (that implies some fluidity) as tilt it's entire density over you, blackening you out in its accelerating shadow and then slamming down on you in pitiless blocks of exhilarating noise: like immense slabs of dense space being cut out of the heavens by a circular saw and then allowed to tremble free and tumble weightily down to earth, dragging curtains of stars in their wake.
Watching the band individually, you see that though playing with great sonic violence, they each play with precision and a kind of formal, focussed dedication: each one obviously (and almost touchingly) devoted to the asylum of sound to which they are jointly committing themselves.
And there’s beauty here, all the brighter for being unearthed in such density. Through the wall-high wave of guitars there keeps breaking through the ringing of hammer-struck bells, and it increasingly comes to feel like we’re lodged inside an old church bell being attacked from the outside by planets, while just happening to be falling down a lift shaft lined with suicide bombers.
Looking across the crowd at the rows of bobbing heads and closed eyes and you see how sometimes people need to be transported. Or to at least lose themselves.
Gira’s song writing for Swans has always dealt in the elemental, and live performance is where this comes viscerally alive. When he says he wants musically ‘just to fall into something really large’ and to ‘ride waves of sound’ it is an apposite description. This is a subsuming, liberating experience. ‘The guitars,’ Gira has said, ‘should wipe your mind clean… like a steady gale force wind of hydrochloric acid.’
And the sound of Swans in full flight is nothing if not deeply immersive, trance-like, almost. And immense. The immensity is enough to get lost under, or hidden behind, or lost inside.... and certainly terrified by (you wouldn’t want on be on top of it - this music - looking down).
Through four guitars, two drum kits pounded double-fisted, a lap guitar, the gong, a dulcimer, percussion, the tubular bells, a yellow ape with hammers, Gira’s bassonic croon and a drummer with violent epilepsy - through all this the music is physically experienced in sonic waves that are heart buckling, that are blood denting. It is in parts Dresden-flatteningly heavy. A World War Two bomber drone gloriously amplified beyond reason. With bells on.
Harder than the nails in Christ's hands, they yet set up the possibility of a strange antithesis: the pummelling beauty.
We can only dream that the rare authenticity of Swans music is pumped 24-hours a day into all the rooms in Simon Cowell’s house until the stumpy-legged bean counter’s heart rips itself free of its arteries and makes a terrified dash for his rectum. Or he is driven back into the sea.
As Shock Headed Peters once sang - “we’re not born beautiful. But that doesn’t mean we can’t go down fighting”.
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