The End Of Words. Swans live

SWANS                                                                         The Asylum, Birmingham, 24 May

Mikey G bounces out onto the stage looking fit and full of fire and the band tear into ‘Celebrity Lifestyle’ off recently reissued ‘The Great Annihilator’ and the crowd goes wild, straight into ‘Love Of Life’, ‘Why Are We Alive’, ‘New Mind’, ‘Raping A Slave’ – all killer no filler, the hits just keep on coming on this farewell ‘Swan Songs’ tour . . .

Yeah, it’s not like that at all, obviously. Swans are indeed a band apart, they may be coming to the end of the current road but they are still on a mission. They take the stage alarmingly early and spend the first half hour patiently building a huge wall of drone. At crushing volume, naturally. They then play another two or three hours of mostly new material in their now familiar manner. It’s a huge, sweeping, dramatic and completely enveloping onslaught of sound, almost to the point of exhaustion. This manifestation of Swans is ending, although there’s little clarity on what that might mean. Thor’s already gone missing replaced by a keyboard player with a strong 70’s vibe, visually at least, mostly he just bashes hell out of it producing a right old racket. In Thor’s abscence Norman has become the coolest Swan, looking now more like a stoic guy at the counter of a hardware store than someone producing huge waves of guitar noise, he’s the calm balance to Gira’s permanent agitation. It’s an absolutely remarkable band, Gira goading and conducting them but a lot of communication is happening between everyone on stage as quite clearly the new music is very fluid. At points the whole seems anchored by nothing more than a bass throb, a clattering, churning storm on the point of breaking. There’s a live album available of the material they’re working on and no plans to record it apart from that. Even by Gira’s standards this seems rigorous to the point of ascetic. By universal consensus the reactivation of Swans about 8 years or so ago has been the glorious exception to the rule that reformations are bound to diminished returns. The key to that has been a desire to focus and push forward ideas from the original band into new forms with scarcely a look back over the shoulder. So on the one hand it’s no more than you’d expect, while on the other it seems a shame not to briefly revisit the extraordinary successes of the last few records before moving decisively on to a new chapter. The new stuff they’re playing is impressive but it also highlights that Gira is right to call time and look for a new path. The last album is great but somehow just sightly less so than its predecessors, things just slightly going off the boil, still looking but not quite finding the inspiration of ‘The Seer’ and ‘To Be Kind’ in quite such quantities. Perhaps Gira can see where the current path leads, to an album that’s just two huge, circling, hour long, dirges. Whether he’ll go back to more song based stuff like Angels Of Light or abandon it altogether is a mystery, lyrically there seems to be nothing to the new material but lengthy intonations of vowels which play to the glorious depths of his voice. Maybe, as Burroughs once mused ‘The old writer couldn’t write anymore because he had reached the end of words, the end of what can be done with words’. Or not. The night’s concession to crowd pleasing showbidniss is the title track from the last album The Glowing Man in which we once again meet Gira’s alter ego/shadow self/muse/id Joseph – ‘Joseph is moving his tongue in my neck’. It slowly builds to it, and subsequently dissolves into exploratory territory again but when the groove locks in to that clipped central section there’s an hallucinatory clarity, Gira seems transcendent, it’s absolutely incredible. Joseph, you have to think, knows what he’s doing and where we’re going.

 

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