Reprobate Magazine Review of Swans 2016 London Concerts

Review: Swans – Islington Assembly Hall, Oct 13th/14th 2016

You know what? Perhaps I am a masochist after all.

Why else, at the end of the day, would I choose to spend two consecutive evenings stood in a packed hall, being flattened for nearly three hours at a time by what is quite possibly the most overpowering, noisy, ear-bleeding music currently purveyed by any rock band? On the other hand, maybe it’s because right now, it’s also the most exciting music being made by any rock band. And they’re not even a new act…

Put simply, Swans are the very definition of a phenomenon. Active in various incarnations since 1981, the New York City-based collective are unique in that whereas many others who constantly “reinvent” do so with diminishing returns, each of their new editions seems to progressively receive more acclaim than the last. Even now, several fans and critics are immediately pronouncing their newest release The Glowing Man as superior to its immediate predecessor To Be Kind: that album in turn attracted as many plaudits if not more as my own personal favourite, 2012’s The Seer, and….you get the picture. Even more incredible is that all of these are now thought of in the same revered terms as 80s and 90s masterpieces such as Holy Money, Children Of God, White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity and Soundtracks For The Blind– albums it was believed for years had no equal in their particular field. Until, of course, the next of those was released…

Not that it was always such a linear progression. 1989’s major label release The Burning World was, as Gira and guitarist Norman Westberg freely admit, complete shit except for one song: likewise, both Love Of Life and The Great Annihilator, despite containing moments of fleeting brilliance, are generally perceived as patchy. However, since reforming in 2010, they have seemed unstoppable: even the departure of powerhouse percussionist Thor Harris in 2015 seems not to have diminished their power one iota. The downside is that as Gira plans (in keeping with his time-honoured tradition of averting stagnation wherever possible) to split this version of Swans at the end of the current tour (sometime, according to Westberg, around early 2018) there are now relatively few chances left for you to see them: therefore, if you are offered such a chance, I should take it. Seriously, you’re unlikely to witness a better gig by any other band in any genre within that timeframe.

Of course, you may (dependant on your personal taste) disagree with me entirely. For example, I can’t imagine that (unless they’re incredibly broadminded) many AOR fans will particularly relish the prospect of being pinned to the wall by mesmeric 50-minute opener (only 38 on the opening night-lightweights!!) The Knot. Sounding on first impression like a brutish yet beautifully textured hybrid of other recent compositions Bring The Sun and Piece Of The Sky (but then again, it could just as easily knot be- ouch!) it’s a distillation of everything (a seemingly endless intro, dizzying cadences, atonality, pounding furores of bottom-end) both the ‘conventional’ rocker and the so-called ‘extreme metaller’ is supposed to hate, because it bears little or no structural relation to either genre. On the other hand, maybe they should try it. The genuinely new experience might do them good…

After all, doesn’t everyone deserve the chance to be beaten into submission by almost an hour of chiming chords, screeching feedback, overdriven bass, jarring tempos, rising and falling ripples of drums, pedal steel and piano, intoning sibilant death-rattles of baritone vocal and wailing crescendos of sublime devilry once in their life? Personally, I think such things should be mandatory… Also, as (according to Gira anyway) one of the main aims of the tour is to constantly develop new works onstage (tonight’s other notable addition being the surprisingly uptempo, jagged and Stooges-like The Man Who Refused To Be Unhappy) each performance will be entirely unique- and whilst witnessing the act of creation may not be an incentive to some, it actually makes me annoyed I can’t witness every show in turn. Sure, the titles may not change, but the performances do: even on both these nights, marked differences are visible among the shards of sonic artillery.

Strangely though, for a man known to actively encourage filming, recording and even documentary-making at the band’s shows, Gira seems to harbour a disconcerting ambivalence about people uploading unreleased material to YouTube. “I beg, plead, offer to suck you off, whatever it takes…please don’t do it!” he implores, sadly very much in denial of the fact that the pony is now very much out of the stable as far as that one’s concerned, and barring some kind of technological miracle involving exploding home computers, it will probably never be coaxed back in. What’s even more bizarre is how large sectors of the audience, several of whom may have even contributed to the crowdfunding for the last two releases after streaming the band’s music online, nod sagely and applaud: I mean, I know the bloke’s a genius, and their respect for him is as absolute as mine, but does anybody in 2016 seriously expect me to believe that they’ve never so much as looked at YouTube? Because if they have, no argument, they’re just as complicit as I am. And Swans, being a band of superior intelligence, should realise this more than most.

Then again, as the other point of these tours is to finance, alongside said crowdfunding, each subsequent album, one can forgive the slight paranoia- even if, judging by the affluent, middle-class post-hipster beardster audience they seem to now attract (the pointy-pierced industrial goff types and shaven noise-punks of yore having been firmly consigned to the minority) I personally don’t think there’ll be a problem with sales. Not only are both shows sold out, but the band are more popular now, with a wider range of people, than ever before: there are as many suits, tweeds and braces in sight as there are black t-shirts, hoodies and bovver boots, and even (worryingly) a couple of jacket-and-jeans combos popping their neatly-quaffed bonces over the parapet. Are we witnessing the birth of the Industrial Clarkson? Stranger things have happened…

In direct contrast to its predecessor, Screen Shot is a short sharp assault on the senses, a head-on collision of Howlin’Wolf and Amon Duul in Black Sabbath’s grainy Brummie backstreets. Westberg and bassist Christopher Pravdica stand like deranged automatons on mogadons, cranking out its one-chord sledgehammer riff with the impact of a steelworks in full production: despite the continued subconscious fear that the aggressive Gira of the 80s (as opposed to the mellowed, reflective sexagenarian of today) might physically attack you for it, the compulsion to headbang, thrust oneself back and forth and throw occasional Townshend-like shapes of air-guitar proves too much to resist. Don’t misunderstand, this is still not metal, nor is it ‘classic rock’: it is, however, some of the heaviest music in current existence, shares the depth, breadth and texture of some of the best avant-prog (Hawkwind, VDGG, Can, Smegma, Magma) and is also shot through with echoes of blues, gospel and (ironically thanks to the German-born Hahn’s unique contribution) country bluegrass. Yet it still sounds indescribable, the work of a band with no equivalent.

It may not be ‘rock’n’roll’ as we know it, Jim, but the same impulses recur during the juddering thruds of Cloud Of Unknowing and the jazz-meets-NYHC spasmotron of Cloud Of Forgetting: when confronted with a wall of sound this unstoppable, the only possible response is the natural one. The most frantic dancing of all, though, is reserved for The Glowing Man itself, extended on the second night (albeit partially to the band having to improvise while Pravdica replaces a buggered bass amp) from the album’s 28 minutes to a robust 40. “DON’T LOOK AT ME LIKE I AM A LIAAAAAAR, NANANANANANANANANANAAAAA….” yells Gira in his shrillest, most Hammillesque tone, a 21st century late-career renaissance Rikki Nadir thrashing at a Gibson Lucille like a Texan wheat-cropper reproaching an errant scythe. Yet before we even get to this stage, there’s over ten minutes of tense, swirling build-up to digest, a culinary delight for the aural consumer with drummer Phil Puleo clanking out slabs of nursery-rhyme menace on dulcimer before pulverising his kit like an overly-determined Lucha wrestler. And then, just when you think it’s over, another ten minutes of lead-out, oh-so-suddenly whooshing into silence. Don’t do things by halves? Swans don’t even do things by ones.

Yet for all their supposed sternness and gravitas, they’re also an immensely human band with a wide range of emotions. Sure, in 1986, dark, dark, bleak and nihilistic might have been the order of the day, giving way to bursts of unexpected savagery, but the Swans of 2016 is a measured, elegant beast that savours, weighs and measures its prey, then unleashes a slow malevolent plague upon it rather than simply bludgeoning it with sheer violence. It’s also a band with a sense of humour: not only does Gira introduce the band with a variety of deliberately daft superlatives before describing himself as “yours truly, Bette Midler” but the entire band’s deliberately absurdist arm-waving and tribal bowing also stands in deliberate opposition to the torrents and maelstroms of doom that precede it. A time-honoured example, if one will, of the sublime transitioning to the ridiculous.

In equal measures ugly and beautiful, painful and pleasurable, smooth and spiky, and with more layers than the plotline of a mid-60s Cassavetes, Swans today are a wonderfully enveloping experience. Whatever your particular taste, do try and witness this current incarnation sometime before they cease to be altogether: just remember to bring your earplugs, even if it’s only to press them in and out at sporadic intervals and make whooshy-whooshy sounds during the extra-loud bits.


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