Swans Live at Cockpit | Leeds Music Scene
It starts with the crashing of symbols before being joined by squealing pedal steel and distorted bass so loud you can feel your eyelids vibrating before finally gargantuan waves of doom-laden guitar join the fray. Things continue in this vein for the next ten minutes and in that time there is hardly a sound you would describe as music produced by the five faintly terrifying musicians (actually the bassist looks like your favourite hipster English teacher, which makes you wonder how he got mixed up in all this craziness) stalking the stage and yet there is something beguiling and hypnotic in the belligerence that is emanating from the stage.
This then is the Swans live experience and it is all conducted by one Michael Gira, the uncompromising leader of the band for the past 35 years. For the most part his leadership consists mainly of instructing the band to play louder, which they do without question or hesitation no matter what their audiologists might have advised. A notoriously forbidding and prickly personality the singer has, before the first song has come to its shuddering conclusion, barked incomprehensible messages into the microphone, danced like someone enduring a voodoo exorcism and aimed a kick and one of the more admonishing glares you are likely to encounter at a photographer who has made the mistake of attaching a flash to his camera.
At the conclusion of this opening movement - Swans don't really play songs in the sense that is generally understood - Gira asks us if we have 'attended church today'. He is disappointed by the equivocal response and seems on the point delivery a lecture before someone responds, by way of placation, 'this is our church, Michael'. Well it might be but the broiling industrial cacophony that is the soundtrack to this house of religion suggests it is more likely a place of worship inclined more towards the darker arts.
The band are here to promote this year's To Be Kind album but there is none of the 'this is our new single' chatter from Gira. Instead tonight feels more like the continuation of a performance that is ongoing, an expression of a musical mindset , a belief system and a communion with the power of sound as its subject, rather than a means of selling albums and t-shirts.
In many ways the actual set-list is incidental but the band performs versions - stretched and mangled - of several songs from To Be Kind. Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett) dispenses with much of the slow build of its recorded cousin, preferring instead to rip itself to shreds from the inside out, whilst Screen Shot is even more brooding and pulsating and yet is still one of the more melodic moments.
At times this show feels more like an endurance test than entertainment - the adjacent bar is littered with those who have failed - and there is a temptation to suggest that those who do survive should be awarded some sort of prize and yet there is something vaguely thrilling and cleansing about a Swans show that sets it apart and it is this that gives worth to the physical pulverizing. A Swans show is an undeniably confrontational, discombobulating and emotionally exhausting undertaking but sometimes that is exactly what you need. And there is always a requirement for an artist like Gira to offer such an experience in a world dominated by the middling and the bland, despite what the audiologists may say to the contrary.
by Sam Monk