Swans @ Academy 2, Manchester | The Skinny

Swans / Jenny Hval @ Academy 2, Manchester, 22 May


As two musicians with backgrounds in confrontational art, Michael Gira and Jenny Hval aren’t afraid to tackle the grubby desires of the body. Gira’s Swans are the epitome of brutal, beautiful power, their apocalyptic drones attempting to pound listeners into a state of ecstasy; Hval’s art is a more feminist one, subverting the male gaze by reclaiming her body as a conduit for expression. It makes for a visceral collaboration this evening, aiming for what Gira calls the “deep sex/death place” in our stomachs.

“This body is not for vision!” Hval yelps in her familiarly titled opener The Seer, yodelling through swathes of dreamy synth. The studious fluidity of her identity is evident throughout as her voice stretches elastically from delicate cooing to provocative spoken word, her songs fretting about owning her face, her Norwegian-Australian voice and coffee. When Innocence is Kinky’s searing title track kicks in, and she shrieks about tearing her eyes out like Oedipus, watching Hval feels like being at a performance of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy or Beckett’s Not I. It’s loaded, unsettling, and vital.

With Swans’ reputation for intentionally gruelling live sets, when Hval mentions that they are “the full experience,” it seems foreboding. After an extended drum introduction by Phil Puleo and new song Frankie M., though, our entrancement is more gradual. Their latest album, To Be Kind, is a funkier, more earthly beast than its predecessor, The SeerA Little God in My Hands struts through its horn-blast-flecked ten minutes, but Oxygen is noticeably slower, despite the band’s admirable discipline in managing to hold its rituals together.

The highlight is The Seer’s transcendent Apostate, a half-hour epic building from its lone guitar wail to reach a tribal frenzy with flute and tubular bells. “A LADDER TO GOD!” Gira yells as he gesticulates wildly, degrading into glossolalia. The chaos of the ending is a Faustian descent to hell, the trap door opening beneath them as soon as they touch heaven. That’s the tragic glory of Swans: their Babel’s doomed to failure, but they keep building it for us anyway.