review by: Gareth Moore
It was during the storming opening song that I was struck with an epiphany: Swans is the musical equivalent of a Gaspar Noe film. In the Noe film Irreversible he creates sequences that can move uninterrupted for ten minutes or more and, after a while, each second adds a new layer of tension. The camera may gracefully float over a city or get far too close to its subject. You may be plunged into the bowels of hell, only to later ascend to the dizzying wonders of heaven. Throughout this ride you are pulverized, horrified, and captivated, yet this overwhelming experience may lead to state of bliss not due to a happy ending (there’s no such thing in a Noe film) but because the artist shocked your senses and made you feel more than most films ever have.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OboHwcVinM8
All of the above could be applied to experiencing Swans. For years they would sonically send their audience into oblivion, evolving to incorporate different sounds and instruments, eventually expanding their songs into magnificent displays of dramatic anarchy. Make no mistake: this is not passive music. Swans will elicit a response from you, even if it’s horror and disgust. This is why they are special. Great music inserts itself inside you; picking apart your insides and making you feel something you have never felt before. Sometimes you just want to be annihilated. This is why it is so important that Swans have finally returned after a 13-year absence. The faithful are in serious need of salvation.
At the start of the show percussionist Thor (who, I must say, actually looked like the comic-book character Thor…or maybe Thor’s rambunctious twin brother) walked on stage by himself. He picked up two hammers and began to bang a series of chimes. He played for five minutes before anyone joined him on stage. This gave us a chance to devour these sweet sounds, let them create some tension, before the rest of the band hit the scene to tighten the noose. That’s exactly what happened. They walked on stage, slowly adding more textures and new notes to the fore, building their musical landscape. At first they gently initiated themselves into the song, but without warning they unleashed the sound of an explosion. The drums and bass worked together in punishing rhythms that followed your heartbeat. Creator and front-man Michael Gira went from casually strumming his guitar to savagely attacking it. By the song’s end he was repeatedly, violently, slapping himself in the face. The audience loved it. Gira looked like he loved it.
Gira did not say too much in between songs, but when he did he cracked up the crowd. He seems to share the same ability as Nick Cave: to master the balancing act of sincerity, intimidation, charm, and humour. Basically, Gira takes his work seriously but knows how to have fun with his band and his audience. His funniest bit may have been when he made a gesture to an audience member that they need to take out their ear-plugs. This is a fair point. You must never wear ear-plugs at a Swans show because it defeats the purpose. You come to have your mind, body, and spirit eradicated. Putting distance between yourself and the music, in this case, is wrong (then again, perhaps it’s just as wrong to do that at a My Bloody Valentine show, but I can’t imagine being strong enough to endure their sonic assault sans ear-plugs).
The songs they played off their new album, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, were played with precision and passion. I was especially happy to hear Jim, perhaps because the lyric “Ride your beautiful bitch to the ultimate sin” always brings a smile to my face. Sometimes they would spew out a short blast of a song, other times a song would last ten minutes. Thankfully, they still know how to create and sustain an atmosphere of danger. You never know exactly what’s around the corner. There were a few instances where their furious noises made my bones tremble. These powerful feelings were exacerbated by the band’s decision to turn off the air-conditioner, turning the entire room into a rotten pool of sweat and stink. At least they didn’t turn out the lights and lock the doors on us.
My one problem with the show was the lack of tender and sorrowful songs from their Various Failures era. The set-list focused on the new album, which was a wise choice since it is a very strong set, and which ever muscular cuts would fit in. But, like Gaspar Noe, they are capable of tremendous beauty. I Remember Who You Are, Love Will Save You, and their cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart are tormented treasures. Hopefully their next tour will show case that exceptional material.
However, even without those songs, this remained an enthralling show. I am happy that Swans have returned to give us the ass-kicking we so desperately need. I highly recommend Swans virgins to pick up their new album, along with Various Failures, and spend a rainy afternoon listening to them. And then, if you are adventurous, perhaps watch a Gaspar Noe film afterwards.