Swans – Not here / Not Now (Young God Records)
2XCD – Many options to buy. Visit Young God on the link above.
In which Swans release a double live album which shows a band in constant evolvement and sounds like perfection as they save up to record the new studio album…
I’m lost somewhere inside this terrifying, beautiful, powerful, melancholic yet euphoric album of stunning original music, and I never want to leave. Luckily the album, like Swans live sets, is about two hours long and with the volume cranked to max and headphones on I’m lying on the floor in a state of ecstatic joy as the throbbing and powerful music shakes me up and makes me feeling so alive.
The trick with Swans is not to resist, but to surrender to the void. The music may be initially this huge enveloping wall of sound, but it has a hypnotic, zen like, warmth to it that draws you in. If you are new to this band then leave all preconceptions at the door. I urge you to listen because this is music that is worth the effort, with a grace and beauty and power that will make you feel so alive.
Swans are an utterly unique band. They are a constant work in progress, a group in flux whose songs ebb and flow like nature itself and never remain static. Their last studio album, The Seer, was one of the great works of the last couple of years – a record so beautiful that once you dipped yourself in it there was no getting back out again. This is the fourth album they have released since frontman Michael Gira put the band back together in 2010, and it’s a live album fundraiser for the new album they are currently recording in Texas.
Despite the fact that the album has drastic reworks of three classic Swans tracks, like the epic title track of that last album, and a stripped down To Be Kind this is no stop gap release, but a bold and powerful statement of its own. The album is mainly made up of new ‘about to be recorded in the studio’ material, but that doesn’t mean that the band has already played its hand. Few groups could get away with releasing live versions of new material before the actual album, but then there are few groups like Swans.
The live version of The Seer is now extended to 44 minutes of meltdown sound with two new tangents threaded in at the end- the tripped out Bring the Sun and a skronking T’ousaint l’Overture entwining with it at the end.
Newer tracks like She Loves Us may have a Beatloid title but it is an epic slab of drone-rock that last 15 minutes and wanders into some seriously odd territory but always hooks onto the eternal hum of the universal drone so never loses the plot; Coward slams around a huge cavernous bass riff. I seriously didn’t think people made this kind of music any more in these spineless times when words like ‘indie’ have no meaning – in fact, let’s take a little test here, how about playing this stuff in one of those high street shops that flaunt the word ‘alternative’ as it sells its wares – yup! it would sound seriously out of place in the placid jolly knees up of modern indie rocky wocky.
This is an album that dares to rework a track from Gira’s 2010 solo album I Am Not Insane called Oxygen and make it unrecognisable as a thundering, grunting piece of dislocated riffola. Nathalie Neal is serene drone, the almost mystic ambience that Swans are so good at.
True, this brilliantly sprawling album is no easy work, but it’s certainly not ‘just noise’ either – like classical it has a whole dynamic of its own that is a long way away from the wam bam thank U mam of trad rock. Songs can stretch out for 30 minutes plus and are semi improvised, matching the ever evolving moods of band and their surroundings. This live version of The Seer is a monster that oozes with its own powerful dynamic, a swamp of amazing sound that creates an atmosphere like no other, picking up from those late sixties drone things like The End by The Doors or The Stooges’ Anne and really going to the edges of the universe with them.
There is a power and intensity to this music, but it’s not difficult music – the trick to Swans is to surrender to the aforementioned void. That void that john Lennon sung about in Tomorrow Never Knows. Maybe Swans are the last great psychedelic band – after all Michael Gira could have been an acid gobbling 13 year old in the sixties who loved the Beatles and surrendered to the majestic mystic madness of The Doors in their club days when they really were the band that sought out the dark heart of Americana.
And that’s one of the things that makes this trip so stunning – here we are in 2013 and we still have a band capable of that thrilling ride into the dark star, that rolling music that is at once terrifying and mind blowing and enthralling, but very much of these times.
What Swans have done with this live album is record the progressions of their songs as they go further (thanks Ken Kesey) out there, proving that there is no such boring thing as a finished article. Each time they play live they start afresh and shift the songs into another place wherever their mood takes them. The older songs really benefit from this open-minded adventure and the newer material, which they are recording right now in the studio in Texas, is a signpost to where they are going next.
Swans of 2013 are like Miles Davis in the early 70s – these live albums are a sort of equivalent of those dark voodoo records that came after the landmark Bitches Brew – the live works like Agharta and Dark Magus – adventures into places that few others dare to tread.
Gira is the conductor, the composer and the adventurer into new sonic terrains, and this record is a magnificent document.
CD copies of Not Here / Not Now have sold out but you can visit Swans own Young Gods record label’s website HERE to find out details of other related artefacts, all proceeds of which will go towards recording the next Swans studio album.
All words by John Robb. More writing by John can be found in his author’s archive.