Long regarded as one of the most intense live bands ever to have graced a stage, Swans' live performances became the stuff of myth after they disbanded in the mid 90s While bands like My Bloody Valentine may get mentioned more often as one of the "loudest live bands" ever, it's Swans that most often caused fans to actually faint during their shows (a combination of sheer volume and intense heat caused by their insistence on switching off the air con at every venue they play) and their reputation as the most severe live band in the world simply grew in their absence.
Happily, Swans are once more a going concern under the leadership of their songwriter and frontman Michael Gira. Firstly they returned with 2010's My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky and then with this year's acclaimed double album The Seer, Gira's vision has expanded out past the traditional realms of rock music into the netherworlds of neo-classical strangeness and transcendental drone. Curiously, as this change has occurred the band have become increasingly popular with both critics and fans, meaning spending three nights (15-17 November) in the company of the loudest band in the world on the recent UK tour was something of a hot ticket (in more ways than one).
And London's Koko is hot. It's hot and it's absolutely packed. Trying to shake off the flu, I find a bit of wall to prop myself against, something to cushion the blow of the upcoming barrage. Opening with the brand new lament To Be Kind, a more stark, gothic version of Jim Nabors' To Dream The Impossible Dream if you can imagine that, the capital audience - usually a mishmash of people screaming at each other and filming everything on their phone - actually shuts up. There is near silence as the beauty of the droning ballad is soaked in. Then the first wall of noise hits, a gargantuan tsunami of guitar and drum (they have two drummers of course) that just keeps building. And building. And building.
From there on in it's just a case of stay on your feet and ride the waves as they stamp masterfully through old favourite Coward and the 30+ minutes of their most recent album's title track. It's during this section that all sense of time and place is lost, the slow, insistent repetition massaging the crowd into a trance-like state. The sound peaks, high feedback rings through the speakers and the whole audience twitches it's collective head to the left as the right eardrum takes the kicking of a lifetime.
Closing with the vast and crescendo-filled The Apostate, the night reaches an emotional and musical peak before giving way to an extremely good humoured Gira introducing the band, then himself as Justin Bieber, sending a stunned and astonished crowd into the midnight air. They play for almost three hours.
On a steady diet of next to no sleep and The Seer on the headphones (all Swans, all weekend, that's the rule) the train to Glasgow is boarded and finally, through flittering, hallucinatory sleep, it's reached. The second night sees Swans play the Arches venue - an excellent industrial slab of a venue beneath Glasgow Central railway station - and it's brick and concrete cells are ideally suited to the cascade of shimmering, sky-high guitars they're about to receive. Outside Gira is stood in the gutter wearing a white Stetson.
We talk for a little while and he seems unsure as to how the London show had gone. He even signs off our chat with "We'll try to be good tonight". It is the loudest show I have ever attended. People stand with hands over ears, the bar gives away earplugs, lips and noses quiver as the sound pile-drives through the body, Gira ends up in an argument with the house engineer about him turning it down half way through.
This is a more aggressive, slightly truncated show (they close with new song Nathalie tonight), Gira seeming to get annoyed at his bandmates on occasion (and cutting the set short in an obvious and declamatory fashion), but channeling that anger into ever more astounding and brutalist playing. It's a phenomenal display of rock music sculpted into strict but seemingly infinite rhythms by master craftsmen - but they don't reach the hypnotic heights of the previous night's show.
Another day and another three-and-a-half hour train journey, Manchester's Sound Control is the final port of call on the band's UK tour. It's a freezing cold night outside, contrasting neatly with the absolute hellish heat of the massively oversold venue. You cannot move, breathe or even get your glass to your lips in there.
Hot and unpleasant though, is how Swans like it. They play through a near-three hour set once more, the highlight of which this time probably being the Krautrock fuzz of She Loves Us, and tonight it all just works. It's louder than a jet engine, hotter than the sun and undoubtedly the show of a lifetime (Gira recently said "I think in particularly in your land of origin there's a tendency towards hyperbole" but there's none in that previous sentence I assure you).
Swans are on a road that is taking them into previously uncharted territory and dragging rock music kicking and screaming with it. While the lightweight and smooth is celebrated and devoured en mass, take comfort that there are at least one group of musicians out there pushing at the corners of the envelope, ready to pin you to the wall and send you straight to musical heaven. Me? I'm off for an ear check-up then to sleep for ooooh about three days.
Michael James Hall @michaeljamesh
Think you can hack it, Swans return for a UK tour in 2013, kicking off at Birmingham's The Library on 1 April. See Aloud.com for details.
11:05 AM | 23/11/2012
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