Live Review: Swans @ Academy 2, Manchester | AltSounds

It’s with excitement, intrigue and slight nervousness that I approach tonight’s show at Manchester Academy 2. I’ve never seen Swans live before. In fact until now I’ve only listened to their music a handful of times, checking out 2012’s The Seer after it was given deservedly gleaming reviews by pretty much every music website going, and more recently (today) giving their latest To Be Kind a spin just before setting off to the gig. 

I may not have heard much of their music before tonight but Swans are a band with a fierce reputation for being nihilistic, adversarial, yet beautiful. I’d also heard various rumours that they are so loud that it induces vomiting, fainting and bleeding from various orifices in audience members. How could anyone turn down the opportunity to see for themselves if these rumours are true?!

The first thing you notice when walking into the Academy is the huge stack of speakers on either side of the stage. The New Yorkers have brought an extra PA system with them in addition to the venues already formidable set-up. It’s big enough to rival those earth shattering dub soundsystems used by the likes of Iration Steppas.

Norwegian artist Jenny Hval prepares the crowd for an evening of challenging and thought provoking music with a set that flits between harrowing spoken word poetry set to discordant, throbbing noise created by a backing band that consists of just a bass player and drummer, and beautiful, uplifting art-pop. She ends the set with a wry smile, thanking the audience and warning them to wear their ear plugs for Swans

What follows over the next 90 minutes isn’t so much a gig but a physical and spiritual experience. It begins with haunting tribal drumming being played over the gigantic PA. After a minute or so Swans’ drummer Phil Puleo and percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris amble on stage and start playing along with the soundtrack, meticulously coaxing rhythms from the huge drum kit that takes up almost the entire stage. After a few more minutes of hypnotic percussion, lap steel player Christopher Hahn joins in, conjuring spine chilling drones and wails from his instrument, before the rest of the band Norman Westberg (guitar), Chris Pravdica (bass) and the infamous frontman Michael Gira complete the line-up, the final ingredients in tonight’s magical concoction. 

That’s when you get a real sense of the power of this band. Once all six begin carving out those tectonic rhythms and melodies in unison, you feel every note pass through every cell in your body, rumbling in your chest, altering your heartbeat and causing strange sensations throughout your being. 

It’s a pleasure to watch someone as commanding as Michael Gira in action. He’s one part damaged crooner another part witchdoctor, switching between strumming out his laments on a big old beaten up guitar and flailing his arms and twitching like a man possessed. Never before has a man suited his name as much as Thor Harris. Looking like some sort of primitive caveman, shirtless and with a mass of wild hair and beard, pounding the huge bass drum or providing accompaniment on a violin that looks like it was carved in bone. 

During moments of extended improvisation Gira and Pravdica lock eyes intensely, seemingly transmitting rhythms otherworldly rhythms telepathically while Christopher Hahn gives knowing looks to the crowd as if to say “This is pretty special, right?”.

Swans don’t so much play songs, rather they act out shamanic rituals set to mind-altering music. They’re masters of carving out epic sonic landscapes with just a handful of carefully placed notes which, through tantric repetition, they hammer away at your psyche, breaking you down and rebuilding you in their glorious image. You get the feeling that this is what it must have been to see The Doors live in their prime, only with much less LSD - visceral, primal, and very psychedelic in the true sense of the word, not just flowers and tie-dye. 

The only thing that could make tonight’s experience even more mesmerising would be a light-show to match the pulsating, throbbing, grinding sounds being created on stage. From the start of the set a pink and purple hue is cast over the band and it never changes throughout. I’m not talking lasers and pyrotechnics but even just a bit of variation or movement in the lighting could have lifted the performance even higher, into the upper echelons of the atmosphere. That’s a slight gripe though and overall it was a truly life affirming experience and one that I hope to repeat again someday.


By Chris Maguire