Thursday, 30 December 2010

Gig Review: Swans @ Stylus

I think this is the first gig I have ever seen where the most striking thing about the entire evening was neither aural nor visual. Swans eschew these traditional live music values in favour of a rumbling vibration that is transmitted through the floor and directly into your spine.
But I digress. What of the support? For those unfamiliar with the ‘softer’ side of Michael Gira's output in both Swans and The Angels Of Light, the choice of James Blackshaw might seem odd. Gentle acoustic 12-string instrumentals are the name of the game, and though they are lost somewhat in the expansive, multi-tiered environs of the Stylus there is a high level of musicianship and a great ear for melody on display. Blackshaw himself seems either terminally shy or remarkably disingenuous, at one point going so far as to tell audience members near the front that they can move further away from the stage if they want.
The evening belongs to Swans though, opening with a tingling drone that goes on long enough for this correspondent to wonder if he was experiencing The Hum. Before I managed to pen a real life experiences letter to Fortean Times, live percussionist Thor Harris wanders onto stage and begins to hammer out sequences of chimes on a set of tubular bells. This in turn goes on for a good few minutes before the rest of the band amble out and slowly pick up their instruments. When the full instrumentation of opener “No Words/No Thoughts” does kick in, it does so with a crash of unbelievably intense guitars and drums that act as a solid blow to the jaw after the protracted opening. Gira and Norman Westberg are the only long-term members of Swans remaining, but the band stayed close to their 'no-wave' roots for the performance.
Pummelling the crowd with slices from early releases and latest LP 'My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky', there is little to no respite for the next hour or so. Tracks like “I Crawled” and “Your Property” are not exactly feel-good anthems to begin with, but the combination of Gira's in-the-flesh howling and the lean, dry thousand yard stare of Westberg is enough to hammer home the barely restrained sexual rage. Whenever Gira is not at the microphone he is still spitting vitriol with eyes closed, seemingly speaking in tongues as he tips his head back and mutters inaudible sentiments. I don't know what he was saying to his demons, and I'm not sure I want to know. It is all the more affecting and wrenching coming from a band mostly composed of men well into their 50s. The next time a fresh young act declares themselves to be the heaviest thing going, I will shriek with incoherent laughter before clubbing them all to the ground with my face. The only experience heavier than this is inserting yourself into a car crusher headfirst. Even the mellower material such as standout song of the evening “Jim” manages to worm itself into a position of uncomfortable power.
The only real criticisms I could level their way would be that their material from 'White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity' and 'The Great Annihilator' is much missed, and that if anything the experience is too intense. Periodic retreats away from the stage were necessary to actually maintain physical cohesion, and the crowd noticeably thinned throughout as the more fashionable members of the audience decided that the scene points gained from a Swans gig were not worth their flesh being stripped from their bones note by note.
Did I enjoy this gig? I'm not sure. Was I glad I saw it? Definitely. Would I repeat the experience? Hell yes. Make of that what you will.

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