Heathen Harvest Review
Brief Reflections on the Live and Studio Experience of Swans
by Conor Fynes
The evolution of Swans is one of the most fascinating I’ve ever come across in music. Where other bands may have stagnated or fallen apart decades ago, Swans have veritably established themselves as a go-to flagship in experimental music. As someone who generally frequents those circles, it’s been commonplace to see them talked about with a certain kind of reverence usually reserved for the most godlike of cult artists, as well as promising artists that disbanded well before their time. For some, it almost seems like the music of Swans has become a standardized test for what constitutes the best in musical taste. Even without taking the music into account, the fact that any band can draw this fervent appreciation from people is something to behold.
As for my own relationship with Swans, the fact that they took so long to grow on me is likely an added testament to their greatness. Although I’d first heard about them in the early 2000s from like-minded friends, I surprisingly never gave them a full chance until this most recent incarnation around 2010. To Be Kind in 2013 was the first time I finally broke silence and gave them an uninterrupted two hours of attention. Where others were quickly calling it the greatest album of that year, I was initially left feeling mixed. Parts of it sounded great, while others, well… For one, Swans seemed to go out of their way to test a listener’s endurance. I could understand the material was solid from a formal perspective, but even as a lover of progressive, expansive music, Swans challenged my perceptions. Even if I’d never grown closer to them in the years since, the fact that they managed to rile me like that gave me every reason to respect them as a band.
With The Glowing Man having recently completed Swans’ latest trilogy of material and an opportunity of having actually seen Swans in the flesh characterizing a small part of 2016 for me, I can finally say that the bug of fandom crept up on me. The Glowing Man finally made me understand the emotional appeal behind them through its softer approach. When it finally dawned on me that I was seeing Swans in the flesh, I felt an excitement usually reserved only for my favourite artists. After all, how often is it that you get to see the current face of forward-thinking music unfold before your eyes?
I could describe a Swans’ live performance as very much a real-life extension of their recorded material: infinitely impressive, awe-inspiring, sonically orgasmic, and exhausting to the point of virtually hurting its value as entertainment. Suffice to say, Swans bring all of the same attention to detail in a live setting that listeners expect from them on the venue. I saw them perform offerings in Vancouver at the Venue—a dryly named showhall with a decent capacity and fairly solid sound based on the shows I’ve attended there. For one, Swans sounded near-perfectcompared to the studio material. The only other band in recent memory that I think nailed their performance with this sort of effortless finesse is the immortal Magma (the previous year at the same venue, coincidentally), and that’s definitely saying a lot.
Although I wouldn’t consider any part of Swans’ material to be especially challenging to technically perform as a musician, the sheer scope and detail make it seem nearly impossible to recreate on stage. Nonetheless, Swans brought the droning post-rock of their latest incarnation to life. For music that generally involves so much patience, I wouldn’t expect that standing around for it at a show would have actually benefited the appreciation to this extent—but it does. I think whatever aloof emotional disconnect I felt with Swans’ music melted away when I saw them pouring themselves out with it. The drawn-out repetition of ideas would have given less-interested listeners ample reason to walk out and do something different with their night, but the payoffs when one idea finally blew up or segued to another were worth it like nothing else. Michael Gira‘s voice was occasionally a little off-pitch, at least compared to the studio reference, but there’s virtually nothing about a Swans show that detracts from the experience. So long as you’re into what they’re doing, they will blow you away nearest a certainty.
Swans made a two-hour set (an incredible duration for a live performance) feel like three. It isn’t often I say that about a performance I really enjoyed, but the slow, meticulous sound design has a way of dragging out time. Being exhausted and having your patience tested is virtually par for the course when it comes to Swans, and experienced listeners won’t be the least bit surprised by what they have to offer. Nevertheless, it’s pretty incredible that a band like this could really pull off their studio achievements. How much timing, how much forethought and chemistry is required to pull off a sound like this? One way or another, seeing Swans live was the final piece it took to make me an unabashed fan of what they do as a band. Although the excesses are just as likely to put someone off as they are to obsess them, the experience isn’t soon to be forgotten either way.