In a letter to a friend many years ago, the great British-American crime fiction author Raymond Chandler spoke about the private eye as being “an exaggeration of the possible”. His words could be equally used today to describe the music of Swans. For some 34 years now, the world’s loudest experimental rock band has been stretching the outer limits of sound, meaning and sheer disbelief. But the current phase of Swans’ career – one that has previously embraced elements of no wave, nihilism, doom metal, dynamism, industrial noise, the avant-garde, confrontation and most every single passionate point between and beyond – is about to end.
Led by the mercurial, messianic figure that is Michael Gira, in June the current incarnation of Swans – Norman Westberg, Kristof Hahn, Phil Puleo, Christopher Pravdica, and Thor Harris – released the last album of this line-up. The Glowing Man also provides the name for what will be their final tour. It began during the summer in North America and has since stretched into South America (where the band performed their first ever shows in that sub-continent) before coming to Europe. Two dates in Japan in December are scheduled to mark the end of this band’s life. And just like Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel featuring hard-bitten private eye Philip Marlowe, it really is The Long Goodbye.
Having reactivated Swans in 2009 (after disbanding them some 12 years earlier), and rather than retread old ground, Michael Gira spoke about wanting to make this next chapter in their artistic life “an adventure that would instead lead the music forward into unexpected terrain”. This much they have achieved through four valiant, complex albums and a punishing schedule of countless tours and rehearsals (in preparing the third of these albums To Be Kind for live action in 2014, Swans practised 10 hours a day, seven days a week, for three weeks).
For more than two and half intense, exhilarating hours tonight, Michael Gira leads Swans across a vast sonic landscape that is brutal, intimidating, often uncompromising and moves far beyond the scope of mere possibility. The opening song alone, ‘The Knot’ stretches out to the three-quarter of an hour mark, slowly inviting the audience into its huge semi-improvisational cosmic sprawl as the momentum gradually builds. Gira – initially with his back to the audience – conducts his band of visionaries through this labyrinth of musical invention and noise with an often military precision. As he holds his arms aloft and invites the sound to wash over him, and as the music acquires a supreme spiritual dimension, he assumes the mantle of a redeemer.
Like magnificent tectonic plates that lie just beneath the Earth’s surface, the music shifts. Out of feelings of claustrophobia, great unease, and welters of industrial din, shards of light and beautiful melodies do occasionally emerge. As Gira guides the truly epic ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ towards its final resting place he murmurs “I am watching your skin, I am watching your son, your son, your son, your son”. At this defining moment he is omnipresent.
Photo credit: Simon Godley