In Manchester’s Sound Control there is a live room upstairs and in that room are way, way too many people. Before SWANS even hint at taking the stage there are plenty of fans unable to access the room itself and left crane-necked on the staircase. Over-sold to the point where arms need to stay at sides for fear of accusations of physical assault, the room is surprisingly timid and good-natured
as a whole. This is because SWANS are coming. The atmosphere grows shaky, nervous, expectant – the kind of buzz you get in a room before a great speaker or philosopher begins to orate. There’s a little alt-rock Dalai Lama vibe going on here.
There are misconceptions about SWANS and they are as follows: that they are a bleak band, that they are monstrously overpowering and aggressive, that they are goth-cowboys, that they are the loudest band in the world. The last two may have elements of truth but there are so many reasons that the former are false it’s tough to know where to begin. Think on the birth of a child. Months of discomfort and gestation climax in agony – seemingly endless agony. The horror, the pain of the mother is limitless. The screams, the blood, the terror. But then…there’s a baby. A perfect fruit, a pure soul derived from all of that fucking hideous trauma and time.
SWANS are the mother, the pain and the child all at once and that may be the only way to comprehend exactly what it is that they do here tonight. Now, hipster-journos are already second-guessing themselves and trying to temper their pretension and wild masturbation over this band with a new-found sly wink – like an ‘I know it’s an illusion, I know it’s a trick’ nudge. But that defies
the purpose of magic – to be knowing, to be overly aware of it’s workings and machinations is to deny it. So fuck that. It’s not there to be denied, it’s there to be embraced, like that child.
Ex Cop Shoot Cop hero Phil Puleo is our drummer for the evening. He plays like the devil, powered by the sucked up souls of virgins. He, like SWANS, is unyielding, unremitting, constant and absolutely precise even in the wildest of moments. To his right we have Thor Harris, the, er, Thor-looking second drummer and percussionist. His bare-chested beating of bells and two (count ‘em) gongs set the rhythm section alight. He glows with sweat, he smiles as the beats he creates lift him up high.
On double lap steel is Christopher Hahn, a haggard film noir character with the chiseled looks of someone drawn by Frank Miller and the intuition and skill of a true artist. His eyes lock in with his fellow musicians, his hands move accordingly, millimeter perfect motions across the strings. When his chords come crashing down your mind feels like a house of cards, your body a snapped match.
Across the way we have bassist Christopher Pravdica, seemingly the youngster of the group, eyeing his bandmates’ hands for changes, throwing himself into the role of maintaining that immense, abyss-like bottom end sound. Next to him, nearly hidden, is Norman Westberg, Michael Gira’s longest serving collaborator and the only original fellow Swan left, with Gira, on the lake. He’s a stoic, long and serious man with incredible persistence and lightness of touch, accenting Gira’s compositions with stabs, shimmers and glinting grace.
Then there’s Michael Gira. The sometimes smiling, sometimes screaming savant. The grinning, grey-haired William Sadler lookalike dominates proceedings entirely. In the studio he’s David Lynch, directing the movie, creating the mis en scene and imbedding meaning between every line. Here he’s the great conductor, he’s Herbert Von Karajan leading the Vienna Philharmonic through the endless peaks and tremulous troughs of the near-three hour spiritual whirlwind he smilingly calls home. He speaks in tongues on and off-mic, guides the band with the power of a glance, raises the screams of the masses with waving hands held high and leaps across the stage feet first into yet another crashing crescendo.
Together they look like the house band at Lynch’s Black Lodge. That intimidating. That iconic.
There’s the bible-black Old Testament severity of ‘To Be Kind’ to open proceedings tonight. It veers between open-handed worship and cloud-breaking cataclysmia as Gira ponders what it is ‘to be kind…to be real…to be sung in a song that’s untrue’. This song is so long, so textured, ocean-deep and sky-high you can feel it in your bone marrow. You can feel it as your lip trembles and your nose twitches and the base of your spine lets it all in, all those furious pushing notes, right up your back and deep into your synapses, pleasure firing as consistently as that throbbing pain in your inner ear.
Classic track ‘Coward’ from 1986’s Holy Mother is a brutal and spastic industrial stutter, the sound of soft flesh being jammed onto knives of glass. You’ll consider: The appreciation of punishment; the endurance of lust; the pleasure of purity;
the dichotomy of self preservation and self abasement. Things you don’t want to consider, normally wouldn’t. But here you are, relieved somehow that these twisted, tangled knots of thought are being released from you. Turned and turned to snapping point.
The evening’s centerpiece ‘The Seer’ is more than forty minutes of heart- stopping, time-stretching invention. How do they make time seem to pause, elongate and ultimately snap? Is it the sheer volume? The endless rhythm? It can’t be just that – Gira achieves the same thing when performing solo acoustic so are we to assume there’s something more at play here? It’s certainly possible for it to feel that way as your head is being emptied, shouldered out by humming bass, driving guitar and shattering drums, then refilled with larger, more horrifying, more absolutely lovely ideas than you ever could have had in there before. The new tenants in the motel of your mind may be killers but you’ve so much to learn from them. ‘I see it all. I see it all. I see it all. I see it all’ repeats Gira, eyes tightly closed.
New song ‘She Loves Us’ offers more in the way of the endless climax – a Krautrock drone with an infinite build that at times seems to have no possible or at least probable conclusion. It’s like a book with no end, or a book that’s all end. Neither or both. It’s another astonishing addition to the canon.
With nearly three hours passed and people either fainting or completely ensconced in sound, heads lolling, sweat pouring, we are in the heart of darkness, the heart of closer ‘The Apostate’, a bell-jangling, limitlessly shuddering creature that suggests we’ve been leafing through a vast tome filled only with pages coloured various shades of black but that finally reveals itself all along to have been various shades of bright, light, blinding white. Your perception has been altered and you’ve reached a fresh, new understanding.
That SWANS are reinventing rock music isn’t in question – they’re dragging it into the next realm with gusto and unbelievable confidence. For a band achieving things that have never been achieved before in music they seem remarkably at ease with their successes. They know exactly what they’re doing and there’s never a moment of hesitancy. While Gira may not like to regard himself as a leader or spiritualist guide of any kind, he’s seeming to fit the role, at least aesthetically, more and more perfectly with each passing performance.
In twenty five years of gig-going it isn’t easy to say you’ve witnessed the concert of a lifetime. But that’s what’s being said here. As an elated band wave goodbye to a destroyed and beatific crowd the shared moment of exhaustion and happiness is totally tangible. The birth has been a triumphal success.
Inside Manchester’s Sound Control we watch, our chests sucking air from the heat. Inside these chests beat our hearts and inside our hearts? SWANS.
Image by Jennifer Church