Swans shows are legendarily extreme affairs. Apocryphal stories of the New York band’s confrontational 80s gigs abound: tales of leader Michael Gira stamping on audience members straying too close to the stage and volume so loud that spectators involuntarily voided their bowels. Swans disbanded in 1997, Gira’s music taking a calmer turn with his band Angels Of Light while his Young God label helped launch the careers of artists including Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family. Although the reformed Swans have elevated their art out of the depths of their early abjection, their songs now extend to lengths of 20, 30 minutes or more, and their live presence remains famously intense.
When the six Swans strike up with the gentle guitar strum and keyboard shimmer of ‘To Be Kind’ we think at first we might be in for an easy ride. Gira conducts the group, encouraging one to play louder, another to dampen down, bringing different elements of the musical picture to the fore. Then, 10 minutes in, the tsunami hits, waves and waves of noise crashing forth, drummers Phil Puleo and Thor Harris thundering away as Gira yells and wails off-mic. Swans maintain this cresting momentum as the minutes unfold, then abruptly cease. The room erupts.
‘Mother Of The World’ follows, a relentless, stabbing thud, bludgeoning the senses. There’s a brief moment of respite as the rhythm drops away, a shirtless Thor blasting on a clarinet, then we’re plunged back into the even heavier ‘Screen Shot’. Aside from the following ‘Coward’ (a typically grim narrative from 1986’s ‘Holy Money’) this is all new material, mixing epic, restructured tracks from last year’s extraordinary double album ‘The Seer’ with unrecorded works-in-progress.
We’d feared the group’s difficult reputation (notorious 80s titles: ‘Raping A Slave’, ‘Time Is Money (Bastard)’, the live set ‘Public Castration Is A Good Idea’) would bring Brighton’s ageing knucklehead element out tonight, but it’s a surprisingly attentive and mixed crowd and Gira’s a gentleman. All the aggression is in the assault of Swans’ music, tempered with extended passages of twinkling cosmic awe.
And there’s so much of it. ‘She Loves Us’ and ‘Nathalie’ stretch through half an hour, by turns hypnotic and slamming, both drummers now stripped, Gira and loyal foil Norman Westberg hurling down slabs of guitar noise over thick layers of keyboard and bass. There’s one last chance to catch a breath before the soft fade-in of ‘The Seer’ pulls us into a final 45-minute suite of peaks and troughs, passages of trombone fanfare, Glitter Band-in-Hell double drum workouts, Gira’s blues harmonica, bells, whistles and gongs.
In the week that the coalition government introduced its harshest attacks on the poor yet, Swans’ raging humanity unites us. The climactic ‘Toussaint Louverture Song’ finds Gira yelling French Revolutionary slogans, miming throat-slitting movements, a call to arms topping over two hours of vital, incendiary music.
Our tinnitus lasts for days, but Jesus, what a band.
Concorde2, Tuesday 2nd April 2013
Words by Stuart Huggett