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Live Report - Swans

Posted on Tuesday, 27 May 2014 | No Comments

We're on a ladder to Gira.
Having a quick pint in the pub before heading to the venue, we see a furious looking man of the goth persuasion walk past in leather trousers, belt made of bullets and a black t-shirt which seemed ambiguous as to whether it was a second-wave black metal band logo or badly written Nazi insignia. Only one comment that could be made, really: "...d'yer reckon he's off to Swans tonight then?"

Right now, the re-activated Swans sit in a very unusual but privileged position. Plenty of the old crowd of course, the various goths and ex-goths and punks and other alternative freaks who were there the first time in their battered Greed and Children of God shirts straining to contain expanded waistlines or distract from diminished hairlines, but also plenty of the new breed of goths, punk, metal heads...and then, a curious coalition of bearded hipsters, slightly terrified looking indie kids, the plain curious and plenty of other people that you wouldn't expect to see at one of those mythical ear-piercing, vomit-inducing Swans gigs of yore.

More impressive is that they've done this without dumbing down or bowing to any kind of pressure other than their own creative drive. Certainly, the three albums made by the new Swans line-up are far more intense and challenging listens than late '80s/early '90s efforts like The Burning World, Love of Life or The Great Annihilator, their gigs remain infamously loud (and on this evening they joined My Bloody Valentine and Sunn 0))) in the list of bands that actually provide free earplugs), and in his sixtieth year Michael Gira remains thankfully immune to the suffocating confines of heritage rock - it's hard to think of a band of their vintage less likely to tour an old album than Swans. Instead, in the four years since they returned in 2010, they're released three brand new albums, two of them double-disc epics that have been the most widely acclaimed and successful records of their career. (With their new album To Be Kind, they've even managed the unlikely feat of cracking the American top forty - does that mean next time I'm DJing and someone asks for 'chart music', I can put on Bring The Sun / Toussaint L'Ouerture?)

What this meeting of the tribes is a sign of then is of a band experiencing an unusual and remarkable late career renaissance, with a songwriter using everything he's learnt about arrangement and songwriting inside and outside of the band - not for nothing was the first new Swans album My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky received by some as an Angels of Light album in all but name - to produce the most visceral, sophisticated and ambitious material of his life, enabled by a remarkable line-up of talented, sympatico musicians. (The absence of pivotal former member Jarboe is still deeply felt, but the work of this Swans speaks for itself.) Some bands have managed to produce great, vital work after a long absence - the examples of My Bloody Valentine and Wire spring to mind - but can any truly be said to have excelled in the same way as Swans have?

Opening act Jenny Hval has to contend with a very early stage time, the slowly filling crowd more polite than exactly interested, but her strange, cerebral art-rock still boasted plenty to admire, with the title track from last year's Innocence Is Kinky laying out an intense yet detached narrative of sexuality and the human need for the tactile providing more of a link to the violent, tormented sexuality of early Swans material than the current incarnation of the band does. Presenting this material in a stripped-down trio format doesn't always flatter the intelligent, disorientating arrangements that make her recorded work so compelling, but this is still a challenging and provocative set from an artist deserving of much greater attention.

Hval might bring a certain intensity to proceedings, but it's hard to imagine any other act out there that could compete with the current incarnation of Swans for brute power and almost telepathic energy. Material from To Be Kind and The Seer is treated as a mere starting point, not for tedious jamming but for new grooves, new textures, new howls of anguish and exclamations of joy. Because make no mistake: for all the darkness that remains in their music, Swans live in 2014 is an ecstatic, communal experience. The increased prevalence on rolling banks of rhythm and soaring melodic stabs, often from mutli-instrumentalist Thor Harris or steel guitar player Christop Hahn, makes for a cathartic, psychedelic sound that, combined with the volume, makes for a performance of rare physicality. The bezerk tribal grind of The Apostate and the fucked-up funk of A Little God In My Hands are the most obvious body movers, but even on more ominous tracks like the extended swamp blues lament Just a Little Boy, Gira's commanding presence spurs both band and audience on in pursuit of magnificent revelation. (Mind, even Gira's immense authority takes a knock when he manages to mistake Newcastle for being Scotland, asking a bewildered audience if they plan to secede from the union.)

As pointed out above, the appeal and success of the revived Swans lies in their refusal to live in the past and their embrace of the possibilities of now. Perhaps this is why Gira's refusal to bow to nostalgia is stronger than ever, with new material already taking up much of the set mere weeks after the release of To Be Kind. The first of three new tracks, Frankie M, opens the performance with Thor appears on stage first, building a slowly rising percussive storm, the rest of the band emerging one by one to slowly build up the piece into a swaying groove before Gira finally joins in, intoning this still embryonic piece with assured, steely gravity. Another new piece, introduced by Gira as Fuegal State but named Don't Go on previous airings this tour, is another intense, hymnal work that starts out at a post-punk gallop before opening up and bleeding out into a dazed reverie, treating a line between sentiment and cold objectivity that much of Gira's later songwriting work has walked. Most impressive of the new material is the closing Black Hole Man, one of the fastest Swans songs to date and their most overt gesture towards Krautrock to date - it's a rushing, climatic wall of sound that comes on like Can jamming in the bowels of hell, an imperious and apocalyptic piece that showcases the furious beauty of the Swans sound in full force. On their new material, their rolling cascades of sound have become looser, stranger, even less tied down to any idea of Swans tradition in the pursuit of an all-enveloping sonic power. Gira and his men continue to search for truth and enlightenment, and along the way they continue to bring us some of the most remarkable music being made today.

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