This was the first time I was strongly recommended to wear earplugs at a gig. £2 later from the pharmacy I had a pair of standard yellow foam ones, and one spare for my comrade, who turns out already came prepared. And it became a surreal experience as the five piece band that is currently Swans, stepped to their instruments to the gong-beat of their fierce Ewok representative Thor Harris- that you could see the crowd screwing in their bits of plastic into their ears. And looking at these terrible men approaching their instruments, like butchers to their fresh slabs of meat, it looked like some ears were not going to be leaving un-assaulted.
Then Michael Gira steps up. The lumbering giant with hair that looked like threadbare vines, covering a monolothic face that looked carved into his head and hat not seen much light for several years. He picks up his guitar, and I take out my earplugs.
They started with a new song called ‘Frankie M,’ which set a good landmark of where Swans’ new album To Be Kind had taken them- to a more funkier slightly homoerotic soundscape, but yet still retaining that brooding darkness of their established style. Gira would slowly blurt the words ‘Frankie M’ and then let the musicians carry the song through in an abrasive wave. They then followed with their most obivous version of a ‘hit; from To Be Kind ‘A Little God in My Hands,’ led by the hammering pokes of Christopher Pravdica’s bass-lines. This seemed like the band’s warm-up song, even with Thor Harris having already taken his shirt off. But the chorus was still one of the most scathing experiences, trumpets blaring and a piercing slide guitar courtesy of the terrifying Christoph Hahn. Once this ‘hit’ was complete, the band settled into their more epic songs, each one almost a 20 minute odyssey, from their previous album’s centrepiece ‘The Apostate, and, my personal highlight, the mockingly beautiful ‘Just a Little Boy’,
The chemistry between the bandmates was incredible, if you see them in the interviews they are the nicest gentlemen you would ever meet. Yet on stage they look like the kind of violent rag-tags the French foreign legion would hesitate at hiring. Michael Gira would hover round like a manic drill sergeant, checking to see that his crew’s fingers were bleeding- then he’d throw his arms up in the air like two flailing eels, and grate his voice against the mic. Pravdica the bassist would look with at Gira with obvious pain in his grimaces, but with the determination of a child recklessly trying to impress his father. Then Hahn and long-time guitarist Norm Westerberg would hover on the frontiers of the stage like perverted sentinels.
To conclude I’m not sure I even enjoyed the gig in a conventional sense, the sound was like feeling my body peeling from my ears down to my lower back. The endless building repetition tired me to my bones bones, and I felt physically exhausted at the end of the gig. But it was this sheer determination to reach some kind of goal that held the gig together, every song on the set had a climactic conclusion, with Gira kicking up a leg to finish them. But then almost in Sisyphean resolve, they would then start constructing another sickening musical monolith. Then with a theatrical bow, they concluded their set- and you are left wondering how they could do this absolutely disintegrating display a day later. Surely something has to eventually break.