Arriving at Northumbria Student’s Union in a sweaty mess (I ran straight from work) and slightly late because of some ridiculous issues with the validity of my guestlist entry, Swans are already deep into the ear-blistering volumes of their first track. It’s loud, I mean bloody loud! Luckily I’d been pre-warned of the potential loudness by a mate I’d be meeting there and quickly shove earplugs in. Even though I’ve got some posh pieces of plastic (they’re called ‘pluggerz’ and are especially good for musicians by the way) between my ear-drums and am standing right near the back next to the bar, the intensity of the bass alone manages to dislodge one of them. I stick it back in before my head explodes and find my friend somewhere in the darkness, mouthing “Areet” until he realises I’m there. This ear-protection malarkey might seem annoying, but it’s actually much better than it sounds, you immediately zone in on what Swans are doing on stage. Frontman Michael Gira repeatedly brushes his guitar with ferocity amongst a sea of hypnotic basslines, pounding drums and haunting organs and it suddenly becomes clear that a Swans gig actually requires your full attention.
It’s strange seeing Gira in the flesh. The man is an enigmatic character, an outsider of music scenes, who disassociated himself with Swans for over 10 years before re-uniting in 2010. Since then, the band have released four albums and some of their best material yet. Their second revival effort, ‘The Seer’ was a welcomed return to the bleak, experimental post-rock of the band’s early years, with Gira describing it as 30 years in the making, whilst 2014s ‘To Be Kind’ brought about some of the most sonically challenging and ethereally electrifying music of Gira’s career. This tour is made to feel a little more special by the fact that it’s the last time Swans will be appearing with this specific lineup.
Back in the ever-increasing intensity of the gig, first track is only beginning to sound like coming to a definite end and we are half an hour in. Whether or not it was meant to go on that long is hard to say, Gira has been quoted in saying that his tracks “await further cannibalism and force-feeding as we prepare to perform some of them live, at which point they’ll mutate further, endlessly.” But this focus on improvisation is also what makes a Swans gig so completely enthralling as a spectacle. Rather than being a reeling-off of the band’s best bits, it’s an unpredictable show that can only be compared to some sort of religious sermon. Gira waves his arms like a possessed priest and urges the audience to join him in his escape from reality. Swans multi-textured alternative reality is a twisted one, that relies on subjects of death and strange ritualistic imagery and as the gig goes on you feel compelled to follow the band into the blackened landscapes of Gira’s psyche. Where you end up is a place far from consciousness, where bright, melodic musical textures are stamped out by the clattering of drums and an overpowering sense of dread and doom.
Once you’re passed the initial ‘what the fuck’ is going on stage, you’re awe-struck, unable to peel you face away from Gira and his band’s experimental performance, all of whom are being stretched to their limits as musicians. Who knew that a bass guitar could make that sound? Towards the end of one track, the drummer puts in a thrilling 10 minute anti-solo that seems to stop and start in random spurts, with Gira facing off with his guitar, whilst making his way around the band and conducting their individual parts. It’s absolutely mind-blowing to watch and transports you from the current place and time into Swans’ world.
It’s quite difficult to distinguish specific tracks from eachother, especially when only becoming a fan in the band’s resurgence years. But what’s clear is that tracks from ‘To Be Kind’ are the ones that continue to ring true in the days since the gig. The repetitive ferocity of tracks like ‘Nathalie Neal’ and ‘Screen Shot’ are given a new lease of life when performed mere yards away, in which Gira’s voice features a lot more heavily – growling and shouting vivid lyrical phrases in an demonic American twang.
For all his on stage intensity, Gira comes across as a jolly bloke, with a glowing grin in the limited breaks between tracks. He even mimics one of the crowd’s Geordie accents. His relationship with the audience is close; he urges them to participate in his shaman séance without saying anything, only waving his around and chanting indecipherable lines that become a part of the music, rather than lyrical phrases.
As the final track explodes into yet another mad cacophony of noise, I look down at my phone and realise that Swans been playing for three hours! I’ve been standing in the same spot for a three whole hours! Yet it doesn’t even feel like we’re done here, in fact, it feels really unfortunate that there’s too much Swans material to adequately cover in standard gig time. People shriek and applaud manically as the band take a bow and Gira asks for the house lights to be put on so he can see the crowd. I feel like I’ve been through the depths of hell and spiritually enlightened at the same time. If you do one thing before you die, see Swans live. It’s the most enjoyable ear-bashing you’ll ever get.
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