As your heroes enter their Indian summers, and the recent deaths of the likes of Lemmy still fresh in the memory, there is an urge among some to see said heroes as often as possible.
Sadly, it can often be the case that they’re a letdown nowadays, strolling through numbers that once were a tour de force of sonic warfare.
But that can’t be said about Swans.
So a mini tour was sorted. One night in Glasgow, one night in Newcastle and two in London.
Ages ago, I said that reviewing Swans is like reviewing a William Burroughs novel.
So, with that in mind and because it’d be boring reading about me nearly being thrown off trains, having Geordie lasses covered in yellow paint throw up on me and having to explain Meccano to a security guard, I’ve broken this travelogue into differing sections. I’ll let you piece it together.
The Knot – Anyone familiar with this incarnation of the band will be aware that Gira likes to build things slowly.
Beginning with a swirly loop, and dreamy keyboard lines from Paul Wallfisch (standing in for Thor Harris), Gira and drummer Phil Puleo tap on their respective instruments, going back and forth for a good five minutes before anything coherent begins to emerge. Like Chinese water torture, it’s slow, never ending and utterly exhilarating
Eventually, Chris Pravdica runs his plectrum slowly in between two of his bass strings, which furthers the water torture motif. Around the ten minute mark, the whole band join in, and the listener is immediately engulfed with the sudden sensation of take off.
There are the obligatory moments where Gira steps down on a chord, and the band back him, creating an almighty noise that could rival the Hiroshima bombing. You can tell the severity of it by Gira’s moves: if he stumbles forward, it will be more of a rumble.
But if his leg is out (John Cleese style), then you know to prepare. Of course, it’s all very flash, but is also the sign of a strong band leader, signalling his band members when to join in.
At 50 odd minutes, this is a real test for the audience. If the uninitiated get through this, they can walk through hell no problem. For the connoisseur, it makes them question Gira’s commitment to the promise to reconfigure the band with “…little idea what shape the sound will take” as ‘The Knot’ is very much a product of this line up.
Will he remake it as an acoustic lament? Maybe the last track this incarnation record? Who knows? All we know is, there’s more to come in the setlist.
Screen Shot – From ‘To Be Kind’, it feels like a two minute punk song after ‘The Knot’ (although this is only ten minutes long). Played faithfully, it’s a highlight on the album, but it’s restrained nature means that it’s difficult for the song to go anywhere in the live arena.
Cloud of Forgetting/Cloud of Unknowing – From this year’s ‘The Glowing Man’, these are the tracks that really recall the early purpose of early Swans, where the “pump and thrust” of early Howlin’ Wolf was amplified to make a grind that would influence countless bands.
‘…Forgetting’ is a more gentle, airy number which gets seriously heavy in the middle before returning to the gentleness. ‘…Unknowing’ is a different beast entirely.
Puleo is worked to the bone on this song (at times, it appears the force is taking him out of his skin), while Norman Westberg and Christoph Hahn drive their instruments into a whirlwind. In moments like this, Swans will take your breath away.
The Man Who Refused to be Unhappy – Another brand new song (with ‘The Knot’), this serves a similar function to ‘The Glowing Man’ on the last tour (i.e. allowed for faster, driving rhythms). Very indebted to Neu!, the thrashing chords over the top of Pravdica’s bass riff is utterly exhilarating.
The Glowing Man – Pretty much unchanged from the previous tour (with the exception of keyboards replacing vibes). Gira’s pronouncements about how “Joseph is cutting my arm on his bed/Joseph is making my body fly” are delivered with a mixture of resignation, euphoria and revelation.
Combine this with the upbeat rhythm as well as the piercing and soaring guitars and you have the closest sound of someone finding nirvana.
Oran Mor, Glasgow – An old chapel situated just off Byers Road, it seemed like an ideal place for the band due to the mix of history, religious irreverence and the use of music as a force for spiritual awakening.
Although the lack of a barrier and the intimacy (500 capacity) made for a special atmosphere, the sound did not do anyone any favours (the venue is often noted for having bass heavy sound) and three short power cuts disrupted the momentum.
As a result of this, Gira came across as cantankerous (understandably so), but those expecting an onstage Alex Ferguson style dressing down of the soundman would have been disappointed.
In a similar setting (such as The Button Factory), Swans will blow you away. In this case, it wasn’t to be.
Northumbria University, Newcastle – Routinely depicted as a metropolitan haven for alcoholic sex addicts who are impervious to the cold, the Toon boasts cultural landmarks to be proud of (Get Carter, Venom, the Literary and Philosophical Society) as well as Newcastle City Hall (where a chunk of ‘No Sleep ‘Till Hammersmith’ was recorded).
This is very much a modern students union gig: reinforced barrier, sterile air and the general feeling that anyone could be playing on that stage and the students would be there as it’s an excuse to get drunk and cop off.
Yet, the sound is crystal clear throughout. This had the result of allowing the sonic onslaught to strike the listener unencumbered. In particular, the “Hiroshima section” in ‘The Knot’ nearly blew my eardrums, while ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ was a whirlwind of power.
Oh, and Gira’s attempt at a Geordie accent was the sound of a dog grumbling.
Islington Assembly Hall, London (2 nights)- Next door to the Town Hall, it serves as a borough council hall during the day. It’s not the first place you’d think of hosting shows, but it seems to have taken the place of once busy venues like the Scala Cinema and the (now sadly demolished) Astoria.
The interior is very reminiscent of the Ulster Hall (very Victorian theatre) and, coupled with the 800 capacity, makes the event feel more grandiose. Sound wise, the permanent PA does a stellar job of translating the onslaught to the crowd.
First night was a very tight and, at times, fraught show which saw the likes of Hahn and (unusually) Westberg being barked at to keep up. Once again, ‘The Knot’ was the undisputed highlight. Second night was a looser show (with Gira even losing his place a few times during ‘The Glowing Man’) but there was certainly no drop in the intensity.
Out of all of them, the first night of London was the highlight, followed by Newcastle.
Aside from the obvious fact that there isn’t a band on earth who can touch Swans in the live arena, what’s also obvious is that this incarnation of the band have hit their peak.
Although the power has always been on display since 2010, these particular shows demonstrated that there’s only so far that they can go without diminishing returns. ‘The Glowing Man’ LP is guilty of this in places, but has enough moments of inspiration to make it fresh.
This possibly explains why Gira will not be continuing with this incarnation after next year. Once you’ve reached Everest, where else do you go?
- Christopher Owens ::: 27/11/16
- Photos with thanks to Colin Murdy