To realise the full power of Swans is to witness them play live, right in front of you. To realise their utter conviction is to see the sweat shine all over the black shirt on Michael Gira’s back, as he elegantly raises his hands like an orchestral conductor or a hell-fire preacher, or both. Since 1982 Swans have ploughed a furrow like no other band. Often described (quite rightly) as a belligerent machine that decimates the audience with brutal and tenacious volume, I felt that after tonight’s gig, I had been involved in an experience that was more to do with unconditional love and a joyous celebration of humanity than crushing hatred and despotic violence.
What I’m saying is that regardless of their stark and pessimistic reputation (particularly associated with their earlier industrial period) tonight Swans uplifted me and made me feel unequivocally happy. This was no less than PURE SONIC THERAPY. When Gira and his friends finally finished two hours and fifteen minutes later I could sense that the whole room was awash with elation and beatific contentment. No I didn’t take ecstasy and I haven’t fell in with a new Christian movement. This was more than just going to see a good band – this was the stripping away of the clutter of a modern mind (with all its hateful multitudinous anxieties) and the revealing of simple love. Love of life itself with all its pain and beauty and also love for your fellow human beings, like children with all their weakness and fear.
I was mindful of the fact that throughout the entire performance my thoughts did not wander once into idle banality or frivolous asides. I was focussed like a beam of light onto the holistic storm of sound that engulfed the entire building. Starting up with the juddering beauty of a song that I’m not familiar with (which doesn’t really matter of course), the six piece Swans embarked on a huge performance of such characteristic magnitude and such awesome emotional leverage that I was left of the opinion that here was a band, and particularly a man, who were more important than any other. I recognised the soaring euphoria of ‘Avatar’ from the new and remarkable album (‘The Seer’), and I recognised ‘Coward’ (from ‘Holy Money’ way back in 1986), ‘The Seer’ and ‘The Apostate’ (which finished the show and just about finished the crowd).
For me ‘Coward’ was particularly thrilling as Norman Westberg’s crunching straining wrenching chords hovered above an impossibly titanic beat hammered down by both Phil Puleo and percussionist Thor Harris. Gira intoned ‘Put your knife in me, I love you’ in a voice that was crystal clear and as profound as murder itself. Pure visceral power. I remember back in the early eighties my cousin telling me that Swans were the ultimate heavy metal band. He used to go and see them a lot, around the ‘Cop’ and ‘Greed’ era. I understood (again) tonight that they are indeed an unadulterated force – they are literally ‘heavy metal’. Whilst on record the skills of the studio engineering often lends their sound a lush sophistication and complexity, particularly on ‘The Seer’, in a live setting the six individuals work as one to bludgeon and caress with such simple primal ferocity that one is nearly moved to tears of naked joy.
A quick aside here to the nimble fingered Sir Richard Bishop, the support act. Poor man I thought, having to open for the intensity vortex that was to follow. Like at Supersonic a few weeks ago, he was mellow and witty and his guitar playing was cool and lovely. He even sang a few numbers too. He warned the crowd that this was going to be the last thing they heard until they were struck deaf by Swans.
Back to the main act. Like just a few outfits you can count on your fingers, Swans are responsible for the sound and aesthetic of a good percentage of the bands who I regularly review in these pages, whether the bands themselves realise this or not. And what is astounding is how Michael Gira has relaunched this juggernaut after well over a decade since 1996’s ‘Soundtracks for the Blind’. The last two albums have been, ahem. . . monolithic, and the live shows, as evidenced tonight, reach out into a new dimension of emotional connection.
Gira has described the new live shows as “soul-uplifting and body-destroying” and he is not wrong. I loved and appreciated the gruelling ‘marathon’ aspect of the whole show – the perspiration dripping down my face; my legs starting to burn with standing; the apocalyptic bass from the guitar and the drums digging deep into my guts. Needless to say I kept my ear defenders buried well into my external auditory canals. Those who didn’t wear them were just plain fools. One man even fainted down the front from the heat, and one suspects, from the aural intensity too. I actually left Soundcontrol smiling. We all did. Who else can achieve such a response?
Scribed by: Adam Stone
Photos by: Lee Edwards