Swans: Manchester – live review

November 17th 2012

Slower, louder, harder. Swans are beyond everything.

Whatever rule book there used to be is pinned against the back wall by wave after wave of gloriously heavy noise proving that rock, or whatever this is, still has the power to make you feel everything. There are also moments of blissful meditative magic in a stunning set.

The whole notion of alternative music is being crushed by Swans’ daring and powerful sound. For this is a sound that is both crushingly loud and stunningly imaginative in its power and scope and still sounds timeless.

Homogenised, commidified and boxed up the rest of alternative music is a tidy, warm ale, pastel shade of an experience. It’s a place where music has been turned into warm knitwear, a nice place where comfortable old records are swopped and new ones that sound like old Peel sessions are patted on the head. It has become self-congratulatory and tame, albeit with a nice cosy soundtrack.

The Swans don’t fit into this world. They are not radio friendly. They are not really that friendly at all. Their music is this immense battering ram of sound and one of the few musics that really can be described as alternative. Tonight they arrive in Manchester 30 years into an on/off, non compromising career and on the heals of their best ever album- their twelth- the two hours of stunning imagination of The Seer.

The album is an American Epic, a swamp blues, industrial, neo classical, ebb and flow of deepest, darkest noise- some of which they play in an incredible two and a half hour set that has people feinting, shaking, staring into the air and leaving at the end with the shell shocked look of an audience who thought they had seen everything but now really have. There is beauty and there is darkness- the perfect 21st century album.

Music this punishing, this visceral and yet this beautiful is stunning to witness and the Swans are at the top of their game. It’s like the darkest opera, the most majestic classical, a storm soaked Wagner- yet with the primal raw power of the blues.

Their music is disturbing, beautiful, terrifying, sexual and like every human emotion cranked up to the highest decibel known and launched at you like an avalanche of glorious sound.

This is not rock or roll. This is a whole new soundscape and one they have been working on for years. When they came out of the post No Wave New York scene in the early eighties, they were purely about the slow dirge like sound assault. Like a later day Black Flag they realised that speed was not necessarily the most effective bludgeon to music and if you really wanted to excavate the soul and make the huge impact maybe slowing down was the trick.

Swans took it further than anyone else and they made a terrifying music but what makes their music truly effective in 2012 is that they have criss crossed those heavy assaults with a real musicality and a baroque beauty.

This is like one of those moments in rock when the lid is off and the madness is confronted- like The Stooges when they were feral, Howling Wolf gone low down raw or standing in a bar in LA in 1966 and hearing the Doors play The End for the first time. Swans have that real sense that you are going somewhere that no-one has been before, a whole new terrain that comes at you with a conflicting and powerful pull on your emotions.

In the last few years there has been a whole exploration of this droning, dark space by bands like Sunn O- whose Manchester gig earlier this year was quite stunning. Swans, though, are back to reclaim their crown and tonight’s show pushed the dark mothership that bit further into the dark space.

There is little you can do to this music other than let go and float with it. This is not music for dancing to and it’s not music for resisting- as you would just feint like two people did tonight, or collapse due to its extraordinary power. Letting go means that Swans become this bizarre meditation, a meditation on the end of everything, the outer fringes of the universe, death, life, sex, love, longing and all the heavy stuff.

Ãœber intense Swans deal in a whole new language in rock music with an endless imagination and brilliant use of instrumentation that deals out an enveloping power but also a creeping and strange dynamic. If they played this music at a very low volume it would still creep up on you and envelop you in its sinister raw power but at this high decibel level it’s crushing.

When people talk about vibrations or ‘good vibes’ they are mouthing platitudes but tonight, with the volume cranked up so high and the music so heavy you can feel genuine vibrations. Vibrations that make your body shake, vibrating off your head and all kinds of emotions welling up to the surface.

Swans grab your attention and don’t let go, for sure you can leave the room and some people do to watch the gig on the TV downstairs but if you make it to the end you are left powerfully drained and shell shocked by the feral power of the whole performance- god knows what the band must feel like at the end of a concert. This is a walls of Jericho moment and Swans could make physical walls collapse with their power but they are more likely to make mental walls collapse.

Their music is a mixture of Wagnerian darkness, mystical Eastern drones, clanging metallic KO one chord drones and military drumming that make the hairs on the back of your neck hit the Richter scale. There is a dark blues in here, the heart and soul of those blues, the very darkness that lies at the heart of the American and the western dream if you really want to look hard enough.

The bottom end wobble makes the whole room shudder. It’s the high decibel Ohm of The sound of the universe and the end of time symphony.

Repetition is the key to Swans. They understand that the power of music comes from the insane staying in one place and letting the incessant clank and grind build and build taking you on an hypnotic trip. This is rock reduced to its basic throb. Its basic impulse without any of the frippery and finery but this is a deceptive simplicity. There is a massive intellect here, it’s smarter not to over embellish- it’s cleverer to stay in one place but exaggerate that moment over and over creating and avalanche of terror and joy.

Very few people go here. The aforementioned drone rock droogs or the fringes of black metal is where it all gets weird and wonky in 2012 with people like Wardruna who know this dank and nature swept place but they have probably been influenced by the Swans anyway. Rock understands the visceral and it’s here that music is moving forward defying the claims that all music is retro from the academics.

The audience is made up of post industrial heads, neo Goths and those metal heads who know these fringes and are looking for the darkest place to lose themselves and come out feeling cleansed and alive. It’s like the Zen moment on the boxing ring when the punches don’t hurt any more and there is a joy in being alive- the aural Fight Club. That’s not to say that Swans are not musical, far from it, there is a potency and beauty and deep melodies to their music and a sophistication to what they are doing that is easily missed if you get too hung up of the droning power. Mainman Michael Gira sings in a sonorous croon making sense of the madness, never screaming and sounding like a Diablo Sinatra- his voice is gorgeous.

Waves of bass end heavy melancholia envelope the room and the hours past and you never think of time, time is suspended by the drone, time is crushed by the black hole power and the hypnotic brilliance of the music. This is the drone is the heart of all music, the mystic drone of the Indian raga, middle Eastern music and even western pop. The drone that is the very sound of the universe, the spine of everything.

Swans are an experience and making a truly modern music. They are the past and the future and buy beyond all time. Swans are beyond any categorization.

The day after the show all music sounds lightweight and pointless.

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. “…has people feinting, shaking, staring into the air and leaving at the end with the shell shocked look of an audience who thought they had seen everything but now really have.”

    possibly more to do with the overcrowded venue (promoter oversold?) and the extreme fucking heat (thanks for the occasional blast of air conditioning Sound Control. Cheap bastards, I wont be going back there.


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