LIVE REPORT: Swans (The Quietus)
Toby Cook gets "sucked down the gloriously uncomfortable rabbit hole once again" as he witnesses two and a half hours of both intensity and restraint at the Roundhouse in London
It starts with no more than a murmur. A low, soft hiss, an almost imperceptible resonance that, whilst muted and hushed, seems to charge the very air around you – the first few, almost unnoticed drops of rain and the soft bristle of static that mutes the breeze and gently prickles your skin; the kind of deceptive change in atmosphere and infinitely building, barely tangible sense of complete physical unease that tells you that somewhere, miles and miles out to sea, it's starting to change course, the storm is rolling in – it's coming straight at you and there's nothing you can do about it. You think, you fear, that you know what's about to arrive; you brace, you steady yourself, and you wait for the full, righteous power of the tempest to come crashing into you and to consume you totally.
That's how it starts: Not with a bang but with a drone, barely audible at first, but deeply unsettling nonetheless, as Swans' perpetually shirt-adverse percussionist Thor Harris takes to the Roundhouse stage to instigate a creeping whirr of tape loops and gently juddering gong-hits that signals the beginning of the group's largest UK headline show to date. It seems as if hours creep past before drummer Phil Puleo emerges to settle in behind his kit and joins the increasingly loud and urgent ritual. As the pair's pulsating, hypnotic throb amps up it seems to hold the air, and time itself in a state of suspension before the rest of the band emerge to quietly pick-up their instruments, followed lastly by leader and de facto conductor Michael Gira. But this is only the start, and as the dynamic shifts, as the warm guitar tones and bass hum of opener 'Frankie M' give way to clangourous tubular bells and the monotonous, icy stabs of Gira's guitar, the tension and the volume slowly rise. Very slowly.
At some point around the 30 minute mark the true sonorous physically of Swans' oeuvre is reached. The almost tangible vibrations rattle the 168 year old iron framework that supports the former train shed that is tonight's venue, to the point where you start to worry about it reaching that near-mythical resonance that will literally shake the building apart, bolt by bolt, rivet by rivet. Or at least you would be wondering this if you weren't hypnotised by the painfully unfurling body of sound created by the six men on stage in front of you. And just like that, it's over, you're back in the room. Briefly. With nary a whisper, bassist Christopher Pravdica, at Gira's command, oozes into the almost alt. funk bassline of 'A Little God In My Hands' and the odyssey of dynamics, tone and timbre begins once again, the volume ratchets up and up and up, and you're sucked down the gloriously uncomfortable rabbit hole once again.
There are few experiences in life quite like witnessing Swans live. It's not just the volume, it's not just the searing, uninhibited and seemingly cathartic energy that is expelled by Gira over the course of their two-and-a-half hour sets. And it's not even their nearly peerless ability to take elements of the familiar and warp them into something wholly disturbing and occasionally abject, the way they harness some of the most basic elements of music – volume, repetition, etc. – and use them to shape something that exists as much as a symphony as it does as white noise. What makes the Swans experience is the, you might say, paradoxical nature of their being, that they're so utterly non-conformist and individual, and yet at the same time all about the creation of something communal, like a suicide cult of guitars, drums, dulcimers and gongs, willing you along with them into the deafening abyss. Tonight, however, underneath the controlled cacophony, leaching through the atonal undulations of 'The Cloud Of Unknowing' and the languid and anguished strains of 'I Forget' there is the even more unnerving sense of performance, rather than catharsis and, almost, conformity.
There is no argument that Swans deserve to be playing venues of the Roundhouses size and status; there's something about the heavy industry that necessitated the construction of the venue in the first place and the history that still seems to linger in its iron bones. The power, the noise, the sense of scale and single-mindedness that characterises the early days of heavy industry seems an appropriate metaphor for the raw, single-minded power that Swans possess. And, that their popularity has swelled to a point where they can nearly fill a 3000-ish capacity venue is just reward for their perniciousness – they are, without question, perhaps the most forceful guitar-based band in existence. And yet something about tonight seems wrong. With the stage area arranged to almost give the impression of a concert hall, with Gira – as he often does – acting as conductor to his band of unarguably superb musicians, there is a distance, a predictability almost – the sense that those in attendance are merely watching Swans play Swans songs, that somehow an element of restraint has crept into both band an audience.
Let's be clear, the days of Swans bashing pieces of sheet metal bought from hardware stores as Gira licks the floor of the venue and several members of the audience vomit up their stomach linings due to the sheer unhinged and nauseating physicality of the groups music are long, long gone. This is, in a sense, not the same band anyway – and anybody wishing for their return is missing the point of Swans entirely. But when the band returned to the UK in 2011, after their lengthy hiatus, to play Birmingham's Supersonic festival, the experience was not so much life-affirming as simply life-changing. For a few present tonight who have not previously seen the sextet live the experience, from the quite drone of Thor's opening gong to the pulverising, almost kraut-rock crescendo that closed 'Bring The Sun/Black Hole Man' and brought the curtain down, there's little doubt they went home stupefied. Yet for other the feeling that whilst their songs may benefit from occasionally standing still, their creative arc of the last five years has perhaps suffered somewhat from having the same 'variations on a theme' ethos.
Or perhaps this is just the relatively calming eye of a much greater, immeasurable storm, and when the next side of it hits us pathetic sacks of flesh and barely intact ear drums we simply aren't going to be able to comprehend what's hit us.