Nothing, but nothing can prepare you for standing at the front at a Swans gig. Being locked inside a blast furnace might help, or standing on the rim of an exploding volcano could do it, to some extent, but there is nothing to compare with the experience of the thundering, rampaging NOISE that this band of malevolent geniuses produce.
What’s more, it’s not just that noise that dumb kids produce with a big amp and some pedals. No, sir, this is carefully calibrated, thumping, driving noise, created by a bassist and drummer in perfect, horrendous harmony, ably built upon by two guitars, Thor the Percussionist, and a man whose craggy visage would have made the late Johnny Cash look like a L’Oreal model. In those dark, grim Westerns of Sam Peckinpah, Swans would be perfectly cast as the bunch of miscreants riding ominously into a small, vulnerable town, and you would know that what would come next would be bloodshed, and who the perpetrators would be.
And of course, there is Michael Gira himself. A man of absolute and utter belief in his mission to tell us, each of us, individually if need be, that we are the cursed and damned children of an unforgiving and intemperate God. There is precious little redemption, or even much hope, in his music; instead, he uses the words of a firebrand preacher, and the close to “Sex God Sex” spells this out in no uncertain terms. As the squall abates, he yells, in a booming rancorous baritone, “JESUS CHRIST! SAY HIS NAME! JESUS! COME DOWN! COME DOWN NOW!”.
But maybe I’m getting ahead of things here a little. For, as a live experience, Swans make sure you know you are about to face something unique. First off, the set times posted showed the band coming on at 10; a good hour later than any band I’ve seen in London for many years. Second off, the choice of James Blackshaw was possibly a demonstration that Gira’s not merely interested in pummelling us with big fucking boulders of noise; he’s also a record label boss with some uncommonly good bands on the roster (such as Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family).
Seeing James Blackshaw live, up close, can be described in one, simple word: incredible. If you have not seen him yet, do. Do it soon, before he decides to pack it in, as playing such gorgeous songs in front of an audience who seem more interested in gabbling away. Look, you fuckers, this guys is one of the most talented musicians doing the rounds in London, enjoy seeing him, and shut the fuck up for a moment.
Support out of the way, it was a short wait before Thor came ambling on the stage and starting doing something. That something was to kick off some kind of drone machine, part airraid siren, part foghorn, at near-deafening volume. He then buggered off, only for the winner of Mr Craggy Face 2010 to wander on about five minutes later, muck about with his lap steel, adding a whole new layer of deafening noise, then bugger off as well. Thor buggers back on again and starts bashing his tubular bells.
So there we are, standing there, trying to resist the temptation to put our fingers in our ears. A few long minutes later and the band saunter back on, and start a thumping, driving one-chord riff that mutated into “No Words/No Thoughts”. The man Gira acts as a kind of conductor to the band, guiding them forward to higher levels of torture. At the end, we try and clap and cheer, but these cheers seemed strangely quiet. Maybe because we were all deaf by this point.
A couple of older tracks followed, notably “Sex God Sex” (the most Swans title ever), featuring the aforementioned Screaming About Jesus bit. Then came the song that, to me, demonstrates exactly why the return of Swans is something to be celebrated.
“Jim”, on the album, is a slow-burning, dreadful (in the old sense of the word) waltz. Live, it builds from being loud, and ominous, to hugely loud and deeply disturbing. Watching the band slowly add more and more – in particular Norman Westberg, who taps out time between chords on his guitar – is thrilling, and quite worrying. Every few bars it seems as though another layer of sound is built on top of an already dangerously overloaded behemoth. The effect is stunning. At the song’s climax, the band suddenly strip away much of the sound, leaving a ruined husk of a song remaining. Utterly electrifying.
Other highlights included oldie “I Crawled” – like the other old tracks, slightly prettier than their original incarnations, and a version of “Eden Prison” which, although quieter for the first half than on record, more than made up for it during its destructive second half.
By the end, the volume was such that most of the people who’d been crowding to the front during the first few songs had sought out the relative safety of the rear. They were missing out. Swans are best experienced up front; that was you can truly experience the band’s dynamic – bassist Chris Pravdica and drummer Phil Puleo in their own private world, driving each other on; Thor manically bashing the life out of assorted tubular bells, drums, cymbals, a dulcimer and some kind of home made thing; Norman Westberg and lap steel player Christoph Hahn staring out at the crowd with utter contempt and no small portion of malevolence, indifferent to the squall; and centre-stage, Gira himself, driving the whole affair like a damned preacher at the fiery gates of Hell. Some songs even featured a pair of startled trombonists who, frankly, struggled to make themselves heard over the din.
One encore, and they were gone. Much of the band departed with no wave at all, but Gira and Thor stayed for a moment; Thor grinning, Gira looking as though he knew a job had been well done. A job of making us feel as uncomfortable as possible. They were majestic. To have taken the core of their sound from the eighties and update it so successfully, to make Swans vital and urgent and damn well unmissable, is a remarkable achievement.
See them now, see them from the front, and have a story to tell the grandchildren when they play you something unlistenable in years to come. Then you can tell them: “You find this noisy? That’s nothing. I saw Swans live”.
Did I say they were loud?