25 May 2017

Gig Review – Swans with support from Little Annie, The Asylum, Birmingham, 24th May 2017

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I’ll begin this review by quoting Michael Gira himself as it provides the perfect context for this tour.

In 2009 when I made the decision to restart my musical group, Swans, I had no idea where it would lead. I knew that if I took the road of mining the past or revisiting the catalog, that it would be fruitless and stultifying. After much thought about how to make this an adventure that would instead lead the music forward into unexpected terrain, I chose the five people with whom to work that I believed would most ably provide a sense of surprise, and even uncertainty, while simultaneously embodying the strength and confidence to ride the river of intention that flows from the heart of the sound wherever it would lead us – and what’s the intention? LOVE! And so finally this LOVE has now led us, with the release of the new and final recording from this configuration of Swans, The Glowing Man, through four albums (three of which contain more complexity, nuance and scope than I would have ever dreamed possible), several live releases, various fundraiser projects, countless and seemingly endless tours and rehearsals, and a generally exhausting regimen that has left us stunned but still invigorated and thrilled to see this thing through to its conclusion…….

My own history with Swans is long and cherished. I have my original ‘Filth’ and ‘Cop’ plus many of the subsequent releases on vinyl. There is no other musical artist even vaguely like them. I have been fortunate to see them live a few times too, always punishing but in different ways. I’ve also seen solo performances by Gira and ex member Jarboe. It is safe to say I am reasonably well acquainted and I also perhaps have some idea of what to expect tonight.

Support comes from Little Annie, New York born chanteuse extraordinaire. It is a perfect choice as the low key and intimate performance is disarming and captivating. Accompanied largely piano, with some lush strings and shimmering organ sounds, I was seduced and engaged by this dark yet fragile cabaret. Little Annie is a treasure, and obviously treasured by her contemporaries given that she has recorded with Penny Rimbaud, Coil, Nurse With Wound, Current 93, the list goes on. I am grateful to have seen and heard what Little Annie has to offer. Lovely.

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that it is hot on this day. Very hot. We are being treated to an early dose of rare UK summertime. This means that a lot of bodies are about to get a lot sweatier. I am almost a little nervous as to how intense and ‘heated’ the show will get.

So the 2017 incarnation of Swans assemble and sound pours forth from the Les Paul wielded by Gira who is facing away from the audience for now. Instead, he begins to weave a tapestry formed of distorted jangles and fretwork while connecting with each of the other five Swans members. Michael Gira is in control, entirely, but not as a dictator and more as a spiritual mentor. His gestures and musical nuances communicate the time and place for additional instruments to join in this…..ritual. Yes, this feels like a ritual, a summoning, perhaps of the Glowing Man of their last album release. Power builds, ever so slowly, but it does build. It is hypnotic and all encompassing and time becomes secondary. How long has passed at this point I am unsure. The ritual continues with structure and form becoming more apparent. This is slow, brooding, necessarily repetitive, this is Swans.

By the time Mr Gira turns to face the audience, the set has progressed into a tulpa like living writhing sonic being. The we are welcomed in to the ritual and the set progresses. The volume and intensity both ebb and flow as tracks from ‘The Glowing Man’ are intermingled and blended with more unfamiliar tones. The result is never pretty but the single minded insistence of the music itself has beauty. Crushing beauty. Swans manage to take something that could essentially be regarded as monotone and weave so many harmonic threads around it that it sound rich and beyond untangling. When Gira adds his voice to the performance, his unmistakable tones provide further solidity to the material and as he frequently lifts his hands towards the warehouse ceiling/heavens it seems that power is also lent to this ritual.
It is as if he is attempting to summon fire from sound, fanning acoustic flames to fruition and then letting them die down to muffled embers before fanning life in to them once more. I mentioned the word ‘control’ earlier and ultimately I think the performance is indeed an exercise in carefully balanced control and restraint, ensuring that whatever maelstrom is orchestrated on stage has direction and form, however heavy and bludgeoning it is. When I glance at the time I release that over two hours has passed. The fact that it feels nowhere near this long is testament to the success of their art form and is often paradoxical to the slow tempo of much of the material.

It will take, I think, a few days for me to finally decipher exactly what I think of tonight’s performance. This was a different intensity. Punishing to a degree but also undeniably moving, transcendent and at times overwhelming as Swans so often have been. This album and tour apparently represent an end of an era for Swans. I remain hopeful that there will be further eras and that I get a chance to experience them.

Review by John E Smoke


Midlands Metalheads

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