(Brighton Concorde, Oct. 27th)
Since abandoning my original punkish intransigence against seeing reformed bands, my life has become much more complicated. When you stick to the defiant but simplistic notion that all reunions suck, you’re not likely to be disappointed. After all, if the gig did turn out to be great, you weren’t there to know what you were missing. This way, you need to intuit who’s re-raising the mantle and who’s simply cashing in.
In some ways it’s not so bad if you never saw the band back in the day, as you’re taking up your one chance to take them in. But I did see Swans (in or around ’87) and have a blistering memory of being part-entranced and part quite genuinely scared. Frontman Gira seemed fully psychotic, in a trance fury, playing out frenzied rituals as if he was only just about managing to rein his demon-unleashing into the medium of music. He radiated the weird energy of someone you’d instinctively avoid on the street. I can vividly remember punters staking out the back of the hall, where things felt a little safer.
In those early days, they epitomised more than any other band the negativity of the New York Noise scene. They weren’t dystopian in some broad socio-political sense, so much as aggressively nihilistic. Inside and against a genre dedicated to Saturday night release, to letting it all out, they’d pound at their sound with single-minded intensity - like all the sentimentality had to be scorched away, until we were left looking at the bare structures of power and domination which underpinned society.
Listening to their relentlessly crashing chords, at levels of volume so excessive that shows were often stopped, was like being clubbed by sound. Their very relationship to their audience felt almost as abusive as the ones they took for their subject matter.
Their stripped-down sound was almost literally one-note, which proved to be first a boon but soon an albatross. You go to extreme places to explore them, but fools rush in to build hotels there, rather than find their own routes. Pretty soon, there was a slew of bands in their wake, like a horror movie spawning a hyper-inflation of ever-more-excessive sequels. Nihilism had become the next hipster fad, ‘transgressive’ the most tedious word in music and the result was shock fatigue. (It’s notable that the majority of decent No Wave bands were exceptionally short-lived.)
Swans, however, sidestepped these diminishing returns by broadening their sound from the earlier barrage of brutality. Rhythms remained edgy and angular, but became more unsettling than all-aout assault. Gira’s voice became as much intonatory as declamatory. Jarboe joined as the Brix Smith of the band, whose tremulous voice steered them to more melodic waters. However, unlike many industrial acts (who they in some ways felt akin to), they never actually abandoned that underlying sense of brutality so much as set it in a more ceremonial context. They still sounded like getting clubbed, only this time it was like it was happening inside a cathedral.
Indeed, to follow this narrative, you might well have to have heard the sheer darkness of the early years, just to spot the cracks of light they allowed to pass through their black-bellied clouds. Gira would now hint in his lyrics at some kind of redemption. As Cracked Machine put it: “in the early days...Gira's intention was to create a music so loud and overpowering that it would destroy his body. The final Swans incarnation were every bit as powerful but transcendence of the body was the goal, a far loftier and more difficult aim than mere destruction.”
However, it often seemed that the price of embracing the all was the need to extinguish the self. (I’ve used the picture of Gira above because of its shifting Francis Bacon quality, as if it’s a figure trying to shake off its own form.)
Following dissolution in ’97, this reformation comes shorn of Jarboe. This set consequently cuts out the whole middle of their career. It’s the early battering-ram songs which reappear - but entirely reworked, their once-spartan nature fleshed out. Rather than running some nostalgia revue for nihilists, this is an outfit that can’t get old even when they’re being old! (Gira has often commented that “when we do old songs...they’ll be completely reinvented in ways that have very little to do with the originals.”) While I’m yet to hear the current album, I’ve read reviews which have suggested the new songs are already being reworked – a cool development if true!
I must here confess to not being as familiar as I might with Swans’ end-days, or Gira’s later and more song-based outfit Angels of Light, so apologies if this supposition is off-beam. But more recognisable songs (perhaps more akin to Angels of Light) were often nested inside the vast (and more Swans-like) soundscapes, described by Gira as “huge vistas of music.” Where once blow was laid upon blow, now there is truly very little telling what is coming next. Gira directs the band through these changes with firm and decisive gestures, more gangmaster than conductor.
They open with a lengthy drone and tubular bells pattern, held until you’re heavily trancing off, whereupon they kick in with a sonic assault. Partly this dispels the overworn “hello Wembly” gig-opening for something more ceremonial, but there’s more to it. It marks out a measuredness to the fury which makes it all the more compelling. They’re not like red hot anger, striking out blindly and knocking things over, but white hot anger – glowing with menace, iridescent but calculating.
It was also interesting to compare Gira’s stage personality across the two occasions. While I’m still fairly certain I wouldn’t pick a fight with him, this time around he’d thank the audience and occasionally crack a smile. He even cheerily signed CDs and chatted to punters after the show! It may be that, having parted company with major labels rather acrimoniously and now self-releasing, he has a quite compelling need to press the flesh a little more. Or perhaps he’s just reached an age where he doesn’t feel the need to be ‘in character’ all the time. But I’d like to imagine all those years of releasing demons have worked out for him somehow...
As John Hillcoat predicted, this year has been a little thin for decent films. Be thankful, then, that there’s been so many stellar gigs! I have more to attend, but it’s doubtful that anything coming up will rival The Ex, Brian Eno, Wolf Eyes or this dose of the reinvigorated Swans.
Compare and contrast! First, the band back in the days of nihilism-served-neat...
...and then... a slice of that opening number(not from Brighton but the same tour)...