20th May 2015
Lets get this out of the way first: Swans are very, very loud.
You don’t get a reputation for being the loudest band in rock, and hand out free ear buds at your shows, without some justification.
But while the volume still goes all the way up to 11 this is by no means a one-dimensional group who having reformed 5-years ago are back merely to collect a few big cheques and instead remain a unique band that continues to evolve and push back the boundaries of their craft.
As gongs and droning echoes lap over us, and band leader Michael Gira shuffles on stage, the opening phrases of ‘Frankie M’ slides into view and the inexorable swell of volume becomes increasingly obvious, almost like Swans are easing us slowly into a bath of scalding hot water.
Infamous for being somewhat truculent (Gira’s dislike of stagediving and pogoing often provoking him into leaving the stage to throw a bouncing goon to the floor), Swans burned their way out of the New York No Wave post-punk underground music scene in the early 1980s, and in the 1990s were credited with inspiring the likes of Sonic Youth and Nirvana.
Since they reconvened in 2010 for My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, following a 14-year hiatus, it seems the progression of the band has continued away from the more industrial edge of ealier albums Cop or Filth and on beyond their more subtle and euphoric outings in the 1990s. These days there seems to be a pseudo-religious quality to proceedings with Gira periodically ringing Buddhist bells and galvanising his congregation with outstretched arms in a manner reminiscent of a theatrical evangelist – impressive work indeed for a man who turned 61 this year.
He and his cohorts can certainly still pull off the muscularity of songs like ‘A little God in My hand’ from 2014’s To Be Kind which boasts a wonderful hip-hop bass line hook that at this volume could break teeth.
As a man, bandleader Gira looks like an intimidating character. All stringy greasy hair, rough skin, and snake skin boots he looks like the archetypal American con. This impression is in some ways accurate for having run away from home as a teenager (to escape his alcoholic mother) by the age of 13 he had fallen into a life of drugs (everything from sniffing gasoline & glue to doing acid) and did indeed spend some time in jail, eventually getting arrested in Israel for selling hashish.
Tonight he projects an aura of cool but the fact remains he doesn’t suffer fools. Notorious for being a hard task master he has for recent tours required the band to rehearse 10 hours a day, seven days a week, for three weeks in preparation. It is this unceasing energy and drive for excellence though that has obviously kept them relevant all these years and continues to push them toward new sounds and flavours.
In a live arena the punk ethos of the band still remains. No frills, simply a band, their audience, the music and nothing more. It’s hard to even contemplate drifting off into a daydream when immersed in the sound and feel of such music. And that’s the point of the cacophony in itself. Not as a gimmick or USP but rather as a shared spiritual experience with the audience, like monks chanting at prayer.
Unbowed Swans continue to inspire religious like fervour from their fans and show that there is so much more to them than meets the eye.
To find out more about Swans click here.