Swans: Bristol O2, 06/04/13
The claim is often made that Swans are the loudest rock band in the world. When you are in the room with them it can often feel that way, there is probably no other band who can sustain such volume and intensity for over two hours and leave you feeling battered, elated, rushing to live and yet chilled to the core by a vision of all the filth and the degradation of human messiness being washed away on this towering tide of sound. Swans are elemental and old testamental, theirs is a music of grace found in darkness – without the darkness being dispersed.
Going to see Swans has about as much in common with your ‘average’ rock gig as a production of Lear has with seeing The Full Monty at the Hippodrome. It is less about entertainment and more about exploration. There is no banter, no verse-chorus-verse songs, no wave your finger LEDs in the air moments, no ballads, no theatrics. Just sound, walls and walls of sound as songs rise and build and rise and build, layer upon layer, until there is no room for mundane thought, no place for distractions and the whole internal space of the concert hall, audience included, is stripped of identity and re-birthed cleaner, calmer, with a new lust for light.
And this was an interesting audience, probably 90% male but ranging in ages from sixties down to twenties with a majority in their mid-thirties to early fifties. A few professorial types, a smattering of the hip and knowing but mostly eighties NME reading indie kids grown into family men. I might well have been the only vicar there but I wouldn’t have been the only one with an explicit spirituality and I certainly think many would find an implicit spiritual dimension to the evening. I had last seen Swans in 1989, during the tour to promote their only major label (MCA) release The Burning World and then they were a very different beast. That was at the height of Jarboe’s influence on the band, when she and Gira had also been exploring their side project, Skin, which kept the eternal feminine at the heart of the music and had resulted, in the Swans albums Children of God and The Burning World and the two Skin albums, in almost conventional song structures as well as a smattering of cover versions, including ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (Gira and Jarboe taking the lead vocal on different recordings). At that stage there was a primordial sensuality to their music. That was not what we were going to get tonight.
Gira had closed Swans down in 1997. In 2010 he restarted them with semi-permanent member Norman Westberg, but without Jarboe. 2010’s album release My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky retained some continuity with the Jarboe era through its exploration of spiritual themes but also regained the brutalistic sonic intensity of earlier Swans. 2012’s double album The Seer uplifted this intensity to new levels – elegiac and elemental and violently sublime. Jarboe was there, but only on backing vocals, as well as Karen O, so elements of the feminine remained among the heavy masculinity. However, for this gig the only visible female member of the entourage was the lady selling the band merchandise. Onstage were two guitars plus bass, double steel lap guitar and two percussionists, one giving a pure and passionate beat, the other doubling up to also play chimes, trombone, clarinet as percussion when necessary.
The gig began with ‘To be kind’ building layer upon layer of drone into a skybound pyre of sound. It grew in intensity to a point where you couldn’t tell where the music ended and where breathing began, the whole building settling into a rhythm of the ages. A mantra was being incanted, bassist, Christopher Pravdica, paying attention to the others like a newly shorn acolyte and the audience was agog, swaying slightly (but not too obviously) to the beat. Looking down at the rest of the crowd an immensely un-hagiographic image sprang to mind – of that moment in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when Indy peers over the boulder to see the thuggee minions in the cave below amassed and chanting at the climax of their sacrificial ritual. But there was an essence of that here – rock as ritual, as making porous the spaces where energy flows and thinking grows.
Where Michael Gira once commanded presence with a lithe muscle-bound panther-like aggression he now channels David Warner’s characterisation of Wallander’s dad with the dancing of Frank Gallagher – a Lear who is simultaneously prescient and sightless, prophet and fool. His lyrics have become sparse, the music tells the story – except that it is not about stories, what we are offered are visions and possibilities, harrowing desolation and exhausting redemption. Gira was composer, conductor and soloist all in one and when he stamped his foot then all the chords in heaven and earth and under the earth were suddenly played simultaneously and the sound was like nothing we had ever experienced and we knew why Swans are known as the loudest band ever, and it happened again, and again, without the percussion missing a beat and it was if all you have ever done, ever failed to do and ever could do was forced out of you in one great screaming burst of creation.
There is a point in the liturgy for dawn on Easter morn where the Light of Christ – the Paschal Candle – is brought into the darkened church, candles are lit all around the building, the entire congregation breaks out into percussion on hand bells, klaxons and anything else they can find, and the organ crashes out with wave upon wave of the loudest, most discordant, most exhilarating chords possible. It is the moment when the ruah, the spirit, breath, wind of God blows across the waters of the deep and creation occurs. It is the sound of the doors of the tomb being rolled away and death being broken. It is the song of Resurrection. When everything coalesced and Swans sent those almighty crashing chords rolling through the night that’s partly what I heard. But that is not to say that there was anything of the messiah in Gira. Shamanistic, yes, messianic, no. The central point of the night was ‘The Seer’. On disc it is 32 minutes, in concert it was probably over forty. Building and burning, burning and building it rose up from the stage so that the music was carried from the soles of your feet through your internal organs to mix with the beat of your heart and from your ears to your brains to switch your thinking out of the linear into the liminal. The only lyric ‘I see it all’ was a paradox because seeing everything at once means seeing nothing – white light.
And there’s the essence of Swans. Gira isn’t offering us a blueprint for a new rock, although he is constantly sliding music into new territories. He isn’t giving us a testament for living, although he is pushing us to confront the darkness within and exorcise it. He is perhaps the musician who takes minimalism to the maximum and reinvents it for a new ritual of cleansing. Two hours of this intensity was as much as the building could take. There was no reprieve in the sound, the walls of rhythm growing thicker with every beat, the monumental chords closing every loophole for self-deception. Christoph Hahn on double steel lap guitar reminded me of Nick Cave’s compadre, Warren Ellis – but comparing Grinderman’s exercises in masculine noisemongering with Swans is like putting a pocket calculator up against the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyessy.
The audience left drained and exhilarated, in a new relationship with sound and with their own being. Few will have been to a gig anywhere near as vital, vivid and visceral (the word which so obviously sums up Swans) as this. Many will still be saying that it was the best concert of their lives twenty, or thirty years hence. Even those of us who had seen Swans before felt that this was incomparable. Some will have not got it all and would have been overpowered by the sheer weight of noise, others will have realised that you don’t need to go backpacking round east Asia to find the depths of your own self (what is travel but an arrogant waste of precious resources, and, as the Swans tote bag starkly declares ‘all waste is obscene’) but that to see it all you need to start by admitting you see nothing.
related post – review of The Seer: https://unsubtlereviewer.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/your-light-is-in-my-hand/