Swans | Live Review

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They are not simply loud, but deafening; the air quivering from earth-shattering vibrations.

Swans are a band whose reputation often precedes them. Through their lengthy career, which has seen both the dissolution and reformation of the band in a distinctly new line-up, the line between fact and fiction has blurred considerably. Most people with a familiarity of the band will have heard horror stories: of frontman Michael Gira’s violent confrontations with members of the audience; his antipathy of headbanging; and the band’s penchant to switch the A/C off before shows. But these incidences, which have culminated from years of speculation, I daresay, have been blown out of all proportion.

It is true, the band are characterised by their soul-destroying intensity. They are not simply loud, but deafening; the air quivering from earth-shattering vibrations. The room heats to an uncomfortable degree, which not only distresses some audience members but is also clearly visible among the sweat-soaked band. Their set, a mere six or seven songs, caps the two and a half hour mark. But the band stands relentless, torturing their wailing guitars and hammering out cataclysmic rhythms almost effortlessly. The experience is not simply aural but an entirely sensory one; a true feat of physical endurance, that once over, seems like an accomplishment. Both band and audience stand like survivors after a great disaster.

However, despite their oft steely Deadwood-esque stage personas and the monstrous cacophony of noise, Swans are not without their lighter moments; the beautiful to the deadly. A number of touching textual flourishes amidst the roaring thunder give the audience some brief respite. Multi-instrumentalist and percussionist Thor Harris, nearly hidden away in the deep recesses of stage right, provided some haunting accompaniments on clarinet, xylophone and glockenspiel, which surfaced occasionally through the din.

At times, it was even possible to see a glimpse of silliness among the band. During opening track, the newly conceived ‘Frankie M’, Gira and percussionist Phil Puleo began making unprompted kissy faces at each other; mid-set, Gira began strutting about the stage like a possessed ragdoll, flailing and pouting; and between songs, Gira interjected with an incomprehensible murmur directed at the crowd akin to a drunken Elvis Presley – a joke that perhaps no one shared in but himself, but nonetheless provided a spark of dry humour that penetrated the otherwise tense atmosphere.

Mr. Gira is a performer, but certainly not in the conventional sense. He is like a manic conductor, who throws his entire weight into each direction. During ‘The Apostate’, his bandmates inexorably build up the noise, like a frenzied sonic whirlwind, awaiting his cue – a stage-length jump – to bring the whole thing crashing down around him. This is repeated time and time again, in shorter bursts, until the piece becomes a brutally simple flare-up of stop-start algorithms. Swans are heavy like Sisyphus’ boulder – every time the noise peaks, it inevitably hurtles straight back towards you, and you don’t necessarily want to be in its path.

Support on the evening was in the form experimental songstress Jenny Hval and her live band. In many ways the support was the calm before the ensuing storm, much like Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart proved on Swans’ last sweep through the UK with his set of ‘Unclouded Sky’ spirituals. To a degree then, the effect Hval had on the audience was dwarfed by the main act; however, her quirky, sometimes unorthodox subject matter and charged gender politics shone through on selections from her John Parish produced album ‘Innocence is Kinky’. At its best, Hval performed with all the spellbinding grace intelligent, experimental pop can muster, hearkening notable contemporaries from her Scandinavian heritage; at its worst, it sounded like No Bra backed by a Casio keyboard preset. Luckily, the former shone through in sufficiently greater measure.

Check out ‘A Little God In My Hands’ right here: