The first word that springs to mind trying to describe Swans is ‘cult’. It works for their music, heavy with ritualistic and apocalyptic imagery, and it certainly works for their following. Most people don’t like Swans: they either strongly dislike them or they adore them, filled with awe at the length of both their career and albums and most of all at their frontman Michael Gira, regarded as visionary genius and unstoppable force. This is admittedly a little silly: “Why would you want to see Swans?” my housemate, of the former camp, asked me. “They’re just a bunch of old men.” The band themselves are well aware of that fact, looking somewhat sheepish and very much their age in front of this vast, rapt crowd. They wisely avoid any rock-legend posturing or visual frills, giving the music the emphasis it deserves, and it is the music, after all, that earns them their reputation.
They played the longest set that I’ve seen in years, clocking in at well over two hours, with nearly another from support Jenny Hval – unfortunately we were waiting to collect tickets for most of her set, but the enchanting, otherworldly Norwegian vocalist is a subdued but fitting counterpart to Swans’ music. A long set was the least one could expect from a band whose tracks usually clock in close to ten minutes at least, but a pleasure nonetheless.
It was also a very loud set – Hval closed by warning us to put in our earplugs, and the tinnitus I am dealing with as I write this makes me wish I had thought to bring them. The dynamic range that makes their most recent album To Be Kind such a masterful exercise in crescendos was absent here: either one or two of the band would play loudly, or all six would play loudly. This wasn’t necessarily a shortcoming: the sheer intensity of the sound made it impossible to do so much as think of anything else for the whole performance, and it transformed some of the album tracks into totally different beasts, which is part of the excitement of seeing live music. ‘A Little God in My Hands’ in particular benefitted from the transformation. What is on the album a relatively straightforward (at least by the standards of Swans) blues-rock track became a hypnotic swamp of sound, churning chaotic noise kept anchored by the thudding regularity and sheer volume of the bass line.
It is remarkable how well the six work as a unit: the simplicity and restraint provided by the rhythm section is just as vital as Gira’s unique, menacing voice or the relentless energy of multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris (who looks exactly how you would want a man named Thor in a band like Swans to look), clanging tubular bells and using trombone and clarinet to produce howling drones. There’s a cohesion and precision to the whole thing that belongs more to the tradition of the classical and symphonic than the punk rock and no wave scenes from which Swans first emerged, yet nothing feels stale or rehearsed.
Seeing Swans live, their reputation starts to make sense. There is something genuinely awe-inspiring about their ability to completely transform a space through sound. Closing, Michael Gira howls “I am a black hole,” over and over, and it feels so appropriate: everything in the room feels consumed by the weight, the volume, the omnipresence and the power of the sound, and you don’t come out the other end quite the same as you went in.