Imagine seeing one of the most brutal experimental rock bands in the history of music in a renovated church basement.
Swans formed in 1982 and split in 1997, only to reunite thirteen years later. Their post-reunion releases and performances have so far met universal acclaim. At least now policemen don’t turn up to shut down their gigs, and front-man Michael Gira doesn’t beat up audience members for headbanging anymore. The band have mellowed with age; but are they turning down their amps? Over Gira’s dead body!
Bathed in electric blue light, support act Anna von Hausswolff started with simple drones and beautiful vocals. The further into the set we went, the darker the songs became. Swaying from synthpop elements to ritualistic vibes, her music is reminiscent of Jarboe’s earlier work but more polished. She satiated the crowd spectacularly, a tiny figure against the rest of her band’s silhouettes. Finishing with spine-chattering reverb and wonderful feedback, von Hausswolff has left me quaking in my Docs and buzzing for Swans.
The band set up their own equipment without batting an eyelid. Gira emerged with slicked-back grey hair and brown corduroy trousers. He was wearing granddad clothes, but he’s Michael fucking Gira!
“I need a little more light on the audience please,” he said as he adjusted the microphone stand. Stage-lights changed direction, panning to the crowd – “Ew.”
Swans hit out with an hour-long number to start. A taster, if you will. Ear plugs were most definitely compulsory, a classic example of a band noisier and heavier than metal without once being metal.
Even with his back to us, bashed-up guitar in hand, Gira had a formidable stage presence. All eyes were on him. No, really. Even the rest of the band were staring at him with a mad intensity, waiting for his cues and utterly absorbed in adhering to his every whim.
Still at sixty-two years old, he is an enigma with the entire room eating out of his hand.
Ever the perfectionist, Gira insisted that drummer Phil Puleo tape what appeared to be a coat to the bass drum while he still hammered away on the hi-hats. He did so without breaking a sweat.
There was widespread applause as they burst into Screen Shot, the live version being much dirtier and crazier than the deliberately minimalist studio version.
At one point, the band dispersed as the fuse blew. The problem seemed to be fixed and they returned to continue the set. Another abrupt end to a song, and the audience clapped until Gira approached the mic.
“That song isn’t over, it has another twenty minutes on it, the fuse blew again,” Gira said. He laughed, and we laughed along with him, relieved that he hasn’t yet exploded.
We missed the chance to hear a new song, for fear that the fuse would go for a third time. The end of Swans’ gargantuan set was Glowing Man, the title track of their latest album, in the middle of which we departed due to terrible train times.