LIVE REPORT: Michael Gira

Patrick Smith | The Quietus, March 18th, 2014 11:01

Michael GiraAfter last seeing him play with Swans at KOKO almost a year and a half ago, Patrick Smith heads to St John in Hackney for William Basinski's Arcadia series to finally get to grips with what defines Michael Gira post Swans' 2010 reformation. Photo by Fabio Lugaro

"When we 'see' style, we see the mark of human labour, a density, an opacity in the image/work/text… works of art get to be what they are because some labour has been expended in producing them, but what if we place the emphasis exactly here – on the work of the work, and on the making visible of that work as style?" – John David Rhodes, Belaboured: Style as Work

"I feel good. I feel right. 
I feel a sacrifice." – Michael Gira/Swans, 'Power and Sacrifice'

Attempts at categorisation almost always result in instances of critical malpractice; to pigeonhole is to exclude and overlook. Inevitably, however, much time is invested in such a folly (it's nice to establish a generic safety net, right?), particularly when attempting to delineate the essential elements of a band/artist as constantly transient as Swans/M. Gira. Across two shows, roughly a year and a half apart (Swans, KOKO, 15/11/2012 and Michael Gira, St John at Hackney, 12/03/2014), I found myself trying to get to grips with what defines them/him post-2010 reformation. A partial return to the proto-industrial carnality of Greed/Holy Money?

Certainly. The extrapolation of hypnotic Kraut-ish/Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd song structures that first truly flourished on Swans are Dead? Yes. An abandonment of The Burning World-era's folk sensibility? Almost. However, I think there might be a more succint – and less hyperbolic – way we can define M. Gira/Swans recent sonic turn, a definition that also takes into account Gira's more recent musical ethos. Their/his sound of late is one intrinsically focused upon presenting the labour of their own musical process. Across both 2010's My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky and 2013's The Seer, Gira's parallel solo output (2010's I Am Not Insane, 2011's The Milk Of M. Gira: Selected Solo Home Recordings 2001-2010 and half of 2012's We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head's second disc) has – by-and-large – offered up cavernous skeletal blue prints for Swans' output. Indeed, on 2012's live album We Rose From Your Bed… Gira presented five acoustic versions of tracks from 2013's The Seer, each with a richly detailed preamble delineating how he hoped to evolve the tracks for that 2013 release.

Gira has been keen to emphasise that all of Swan's output post-reformation exists in a state of constant transience; ever evolving and extending, these are tracks that are constantly torn apart, reassembled, reworked and – most importantly – beautifully laboured upon. The version of 'Jim' that opens his solo performance at St John at Hackney – part of William Basinki's Arcadia series – is a case in point. Legs twitching and writhing, Gira presents a version of the song that is almost unrecognisable in comparison to the studio version on My Father…, both of which are, in turn, radically different from the constantly shifting Swans' live version. The lilting guitar syncopation of the studio version is cast aside in favour of an achingly slow acousto-electric, Henry Flynt-inflected, chime undercut by Gira's arching, almost crooning, vocals.

The desire to get across the physicality and labour involved in their/his work is no new phenomenon. It is certainly a residual mentality left over from the raw "sonic chunk" sound that defined Swan's early output. Stick on Filth, close your eyes, and try to visualise the physical demands of guttural tracks like Big Strong Boss and Blackout – it's pretty easy. The essential physicality of Gira's music is something that remains central to the solo performance tonight, as he asks between songs for the sound to be ramped up, so "they [the audience] can feel it in the pit of their stomachs." It certainly has the desired effect.

The third and fourth songs of Gira's set draw together two distinct epochs of his and Swans' career trajectory. The third track 'Oxygen' will feature on the forthcoming Swans' album, slated for a May 2014 release. The version presented tonight is once again not only markedly different from the live version played throughout 2013, but, as Gira suggests before the song, this version "also sounds nothing like the studio version, so fuck you." Gira's lightly lilting two-chord strum sits to the back of the room while his abrasive vocal onslaught takes centre stage quite brazenly/perfectly. The next track, 'I See Them All Lined Up' first appeared on the double album Soundtracks For The Blind and secondly on Swans Are Dead, tracks for which were culled from their final tours before disbanding in 1997. His melancholic rendition tonight – closer in tone to the Soundtracksversion rather than the pulsing rhythm of the version on Swans Are Dead – offers a moment of insular reflection, rare amongst a set of relentless invention, progression and forward momentum. Above all, however, it is a stripped back rawness and refinery that defines tonight's performance: as the guitar drives and rips through the songs, there is a marked sense of ruthless unfussiness.   

It is perhaps easy to say Swans/M. Gira aren't particularly intimate musical forces, especially if you take Gira's 'My Suicide' verbatim: "I hate you all for what I've done , I hate you for the texture and the color of your skin , I hate your whispered breath upon my neck , I hate you for your love and I hate you for sex." However, post-reformation, and tonight in particular, there is a growing sense of openness and inclusiveness in Gira's relationship to his audience – maybe some of Arcadia's historical inclusivity has rubbed off on him tonight. Regardless, his new methodology, exposing each facet of Swan's song construction both on record and live, suggests a desire to bare-all. This rendering of process and labour is something to be seriously treasured in an age of musical tabula rasa.