Islington Assembly Hall – 13 October
A Swans show is never a sure thing. Michael Gira’s drone machine has been rolling for over 35 years (excusing that lengthy hiatus) and in that time we’ve bared witness to the peaks and troughs of quality the band are capable of. On one hand they have the benefit of time and experience to hone their craft, but on the other the ever-shifting line-up of Swans backline always introduces an element of change and uncertainty.
Tonight however the band are tight, almost to a fault. Michael is his totemic himself, the Jekyll and Hyde figure, at once the welcoming auteur and the char-hearted grandfather of experimental doom. This is not a gig for a first date. Confrontational in its volume, wilfully inaccessible in its content, you could comfortably call Swans’ live presence pretentious. But this is hardly a criticism. Swans have earned it, and as they continue their death march through ‘Cloud Of Forgetting’, submission to the brutal force of it is necessary. The drone is rich, the build indulgently heavy-footed. By contrast, To Be Kind’s ‘Screen Shot’ is playful and pacey, with the energy on-stage fading from the usual wave of malevolent darkness into something more recognisable as enthusiasm and driving momentum. It’s a reprieve, but only to make the plummet into winding new cut ‘The Man Who Refused To Be Unhappy’ all the more gutsy.
The Islington Assembly Rooms is suitably cavernous for their beastly noise, though the on-stage lighting is too washed-out and flat. In the menacing valleys of ‘The Knot’, Michael and co are illuminated in dull pastel light, which feels at odds with the sonic depths they dredge, and some of the atmosphere is lost. Still, this feels like the kind of show apart from other shows, just as Swans are apart from other bands. While he only has a few choice words for the audience, Michael is charismatic, even friendly, and he leads his crew with a blend of bristling stillness and wild animation.
The emphasis tonight is less on the fun and more on the challenge; Swans challenge you to endure, to ride with them through the blackest grooves of their minds, and for that their is mutual respect between audience and performer.