Swans: O2 Academy, Bristol – live review

Swans & Xiu Xiu,
O2 Academy, Bristol
6th April 2013

Swans were runaway top dogs in our “200 Albums of the Year” run down last year. There wasn’t one of us who disagreed with the choice. So inevitably when the band announced this tour we were duty bound to send someone along to cover the show. And who better than someone who first saw them live well over 20 years ago?

Eeee, I dunno. I’ve got a problem with Swans. More accurately, I’ve got a problem with Swans live. I must be the only person who could go away from a gig of such moment as last Saturday’s Swans performance was (great, towering, emotions through the ringer type “moment”) and still be a bit disappointed. A bit empty. And not empty in a “just having seen Haxan Cloak play live” sense of the word “empty” which is obviously, as anyone who’s ever seen The Haxan Cloak live will know, a very, very good “empty”. “Empty” in a little bit disappointed sense of the word “empty”.

I’m going to have to explain myself. (Skip to the paragraph that starts “So, finally, to the show itself…” if you just want a gig review). I blame 1987. More precisely the 23rd October 1987. And even more accurately Swans live at Leeds Poly on the 23rd October 1987. That was a show. A show to end all shows. Or certainly a show to end all Swans shows for me from then onwards. A show that means that date, 23rd October 1987, has been engraved onto my subconsciousness psyche to such a powerful extent that I walk about in a bit of a daze every year when that date happens along. The story of that day is one I’ve told a few times before so apologies to any friends reading this.

We’re sat comfortably right? Cool. Then we’ll begin.

So, 1987. There I was up in Hull ostensibly gainfully whiling away my days getting me a physics degree (but in reality just pissing about & wasting ‘the best years of my life’ being a bit of a prick). I had a Swans “Time is Money, Bastards” T-shirt that I wore to death & spent a good proportion of my time telling people how fucking awesome Children Of God was. So when Swans announced a tour it was inevitable I was going to bug my mate with a car ragged until he promised to take me to Leeds to see them. Long story short, we went & frankly, golly. Golly to the power of golly. I may’ve been young but I’d already been to a fair amount of live shows. So I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a lamb to the slaughter any more that anyone else in that room was. Hec, the year before I’d been to see Butthole Surfers & part of their set was a backdrop of some manner of penis operation. Grown punks around me were passing out.

Anyway, I was shit faced, naturally, so my memory of the actual show is kind of tainted by both the mists of alcohol & time but the profound effect it had on me is something I’ll never forget. Honestly, people say Swans are loud now. I “pah!” in their general direction when they say such to me & mutter, “23rd Oct 1987 mate, now that was when Swans were loud”. I don’t think our old friend health ‘n’ safety allows contemporary Swans to even come close to being as loud as they were ‘in days of old’. So yeah, I may not have much of a recollection of the actual show but I certainly remember the aftermath. The afterdazedmath. Everyone filing out, no one saying a word. It was like we’d all been lobotomised. I swear, me & my two mates walked from the venue to the car without speaking a word to each other. Then we drove from Leeds back to Hull with none of us speaking a word. Then we all got out of the car & went to our respective beds, again, none of us speaking a word. We were literally rent. Not just rent speechless (although that as well obviously) but rent. Rent bodily, emotionally & spiritually. To this day I have no idea how my mate managed to drive us home. And to this day that has to be the most amazing evening of my life.

Now fast forward to 2010 and Swans reform. Not only that but, lo & behold, the album they release, My Father, is a corker. Gigs get announced and off I go up to Manchester (from Bristol) to see them live, essentially chock full of expectation but aware of the rose tinted specs phenomena. And yeah, inevitably it was a disappointment. So quiet. I was so unmoved. Somewhat gutted I vowed never to go see them again.

Then The Seer comes out & fuck me it’s even better than My Father. Gigs are announced again & one of them’s at The Arnolfini in Bristol, possibly my favourite live music venue here with an awesome PA &, most importantly, a capacity no more than 300 I’d say. If ever Swans were going to recreate how (literally) stunning they were in ’87 it was going to be this show in this venue. Intimacy breeds something special I figured & if I lowered my expectations it’d be worth a punt. Then comes the punch to the solar plexus – a month or so after tickets go on sale (a couple of weeks after they sell out) the event gets moved to the godforsaken soulless pit that is the O2 Academy. I felt badly let down. I still do & I don’t understand what went on there. I suspect at the centre of the whole farce though is that the promoter wasn’t from Bristol. Any Bristol promoter woulda booked them straight into Trinity, charged £20 and nicely sold the place out. I decided against going immediately. Then I told our dear leader (John Robb) about my decision & he set right to convincing me to change my mind. Swans are at the top of their game right now he suggested. I’d be an idiot not to change my mind & go.

So change my mind & went I did.

So, finally, to the show itself. Xiu Xiu kicked off proceedings. We have someone else reviewing Xiu Xiu for us (a different show, the Koko one in London with Mercury Rev Tettix Experiment and Ben Frost.) So I won’t dwell on his performance. Suffice to say he set the stage admirably well for what was to follow. Flying solo these days (or at least tonight) he spent the duration of his set sat down manipulating some incredible sounds from his guitar & making the sort of tortured sounds a soul struggling to come to grips with life might make. All to a backing tape of birds signing. Half the time he seemed completely oblivious to the fact that he was in company so lost in his own world did he appear to be. Immaculately dressed & groomed one could imagine him & Gira chewing the fat over a bottle of peaty malt to the wee small hours.

Cue 8.45 & enter sedately, stage right, Swans. Despite all the above & despite my attempt to dampen those expectations I was still pumped. And I pretty much stayed pumped all through the night. One gets ones money where Swans are concerned. All £22 / £25 worth of your money. I suspect that if the show had originally been booked for the O2 the cost would’ve been a fiver less & in those circs there may’ve sold more than the 700 tickets they did sell. I know a lot of people who didn’t come because of the cost. It was a nice mixed audience mind, contrary to my expectations of an older, mainly male crowd. And despite the capacity being 1600 it still felt reasonably well full.

Swans have presence. Even during the first, comparatively gentle 15 / 20 minutes of opening track “To Be Kind” they had presence (and similarly during every quieter moment that followed). The feeling was more one of “atmosphere building, ready to break” though rather than “calm before the storm” during the build up. It was one of those “pregnant” atmospheres, full & bloated, tension not so much being ratcheted slowly upwards but rather just holding, steadily at the same level till it inevitably burst into probably the loudest part of the whole show, a physical smack of sonic power which fair shook, one imagines, the whole of Bristol. It was a perfect way to start. From thence on it it was roller coaster ride between louder, rhythmically pumping moments when the whole band were a mass of movement, all totally in time with each other as they added one more instrument onto one more instrument onto one more instrument; and more subdued, droning, mesmerising, breath catching, building moments. Both were perfectly poised & both worked off each other incredibly cleverly. For me, not for a moment did it feel like they were playing ‘songs’ as such and it was this idea that led me to the dictionary when I got home whereupon I looked up “Gestalt” & found:

“Gestalt |gəˈʃtɑːlt, -ˈʃtalt| noun Psychology. An organised whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.”

Now that rang a bell. So next I looked up Swans & found:

“Swans |swɒns| noun. An organised whole that the fucking fuck is more than the sum of its fucking parts.”

..and those ‘parts’ that Swans have are so amazingly powerful & screamingly talented that it would be truly impossible for anyone to imagine what that ‘whole’ is unless one’s actually experienced it. Norman Westberg was his usual phenomenal self, he being, of course, the only remaining constant apart from Gira himself. He helps orchestrate things, quietly & unobtrusively. Apart from Gira though the two members of the band who grab your attention & do most to create the Swans sound are Christoph Hahn on his open-tuned lap steel guitar (wow did that make a sound) & Thor Harris on things one hits (drums in the main but also, of course, those tubular bells) and things one blows (clarinet & whistle). We know Thor’s strong but it was a revelation seeing him do subtle too. But of course it’s Gira who holds your attention 95% of the times. It always has been. Even was back when he was onstage with a topless Jarboe (and I was a teenage bwoy ye recall). Quiet ridiculous how he transfixes you as he moves & sings. He was not only controlling procedings but it felt like he was controlling us too. Of course he was just being MG. He was just being primordial & dynamic. Whether he was howling into his microphone, coming over to Christoph so the two could better interact or jumping in time to the crushing percussion he was just being MG & he was just being watched.

Not something one might expect from a Swans performance but the whole band seemed to be having an absolute whale of a time. There were smiles even. I always imagined that to be a part of Swans, one of the members of the band, must be incredibly energy sapping. Physically, emotionally & spiritually. After all, that, that’s the case when you’re watching the buggers, ergo, being invested in creating that sound must be even more of a drain! But at times the band almost seemed to be purring. And I get that. On the rare occasions when I turned focus on myself during the set (one gets lost in Swans, caught up in Swans, taken right out of oneself by Swans) I was aware not only of the fact that my back was killing me (the result of 9 spinal fractures a few years ago) but also (and mainly) I was aware of the inevitable turbulently swelling euphoria resounding through my body but also something akin to a rictus like grin spread across my face. I was in a state of perpetual stokedness.

Cameth the end and yay, verily did the place the fuck erupt. It’s the only way to react straight after a Swans gig. One needs to exorcise all that pent up shit somehow. All that pent up emotion like shit. And a giving yer all with the clap & the whoop seems like the best way to do that. It seemed like the polite way to do that anyway although collapsing to the floor & curling into a ball may’ve been appropriate too. We clapped & we whooped & we whooped & we clapped. And Swans? They took it all in, grinning, to a man, from ear to ear. They all came to the front of the stage, held hands & bowed repeatedly. Taking our well deserved clap & proper beaming. Gira introduced the band one by one. He came to himself eventually & went “…and me? well me, I’m Justin Bieber”. A joke. A funny joke. Definitely a joke funnier than mine anyway (I had my schnozzle pierced earlier in the day & quipped to the woman with the needle “this won’t be the first time my nose’ll be bleeding today, I’m going to see Swans later tonight). Gonna leave the joking to Michael from now on.

So, bringing the piece full circle, was a glad I went? Hell aye yeah was I. And did it even come close to being as good as they were in 1987? Nah, course not. I certainly wasn’t capable of much speech afterwards but for the opposite reason to 1987. Back then my silence was the result of an absence. An empty mind / an empty body. My being had temporarily been sucked from my “me”. With Swans 2013 though the reason I was so quiet afterwards was because my head was awash. Awash with thoughts. Awash with remembrances of the 2 hours past. Awash with a desire not to forget a moment of it. A lot of people will tell you that there’s not much different between Swans now & Swans then. A lot of people are wrong. Very, very wrong. In so many ways but mainly because they’ve lost their non stop brutality. They’ve added in a lot more reflective moments & it’s this that makes the difference. It all helps you process their onslaught (and the main thrust of Swans 2013 still is “onslaught”). I would love to go back and see them again to directly compare the two experiences. See what difference the absence of rose tinted specs makes. But taint gonna happen. Meanwhile I give thanks to our great leader for persuading me to go. Thanks John.

All words Guy Manchester. More words by Guy can be read here. He tweets as @guid0man & usesTumblr.


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