Swans - Leeds University Stylus, Leeds

by Andy Brown Rating: Release Date:

Walking into Leeds University Stylus I’m instantly taken back to the first time I saw Michael Gira and his mighty Swans in action. It was late 2010 and the band, having been inactive since ‘97, had just revived the Swans moniker and released My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky. To say it was exciting would be something of a monumental understatement.

My friend had introduced me to their uncompromising world via the likes of Cop/Greed/Holy Money and Various Failures. And now, the band I thought I had no chance of seeing live was back with a vengeance. Tonight will be the fourth and no doubt final time I see Swans in their current incarnation. Much like the band’s music, the whole experience feels like some kind of epic, indefinable journey.

Before the madness can begin in earnest we’re treated to a set from Little Annie and her accomplice Paul Wallfisch. Like Swans, Annie has been releasing music since the early eighties and has collaborated with the likes of Current 93, Coil, Nurse with Wound and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Although her career has embraced many different styles, tonight see’s Annie cast as the jazz singer, the smoky bar balladeer with a million stories to tell.

Wallfish provides gentle piano accompaniment as Annie takes us through a selection of her own material and some carefully chosen covers. Her intimate renditions of ‘Shipbuilding’ and ‘You Don’t Know What Love is’ are enough to melt even the hardest heart while the likes of ‘Because You’re Gone’ reveal an artist with an impressive back-catalogue of her own. At one point she says “thank you” after finishing a song and an audience member shouts back “thank you”.  It’s a wonderful performance from a charismatic and truly gifted artist.

As the band makes their way to the stage I put my earplugs in and wait for the first wave of noise to hit. Earplugs are something of a necessity at a Swans show. The amplifiers hum into life and a wall of drones begins to emanate from the stage. You’re utterly submerged in the bands world from the very start, unable to focus on anything else but that slow building wave of sound. When the band kicks in it’s absolutely crushing and euphoric all at the same time. Swans don’t just plug-in and run through a few songs, their shows are immersive experiences. You’ll know fairly early on if you’re up for the ride or desperate to run away.

Looking through the track-listing after the show I realise that the first piece was something new called ‘The Knot’. Blimey, I thought to myself, that first 45 minutes really was all the same song. This was Swans at their most uncompromising; the sound that they’d been building towards since 2012’s The Seer. Passages of intense, relentlessly building noise that find every member of the band going hell-for-leather interspersed with Gira’s cryptic, prayer like chants. When they follow this with the propulsive and comparatively streamlined pleasures of ‘Screen Shot’ it feels like a moment of pure release and catharsis.

Gira’s strong and distinctive vocals are often central to the bands sound yet tonight they’re merely another instrument contributing to the cacophonous and heady mix of textures. Gira’s words and imagery only add to the intensity with cries of “sanity”, “blood”, "Jesus” and “freedom” surfacing from the sea of noise. Upon double-checking it turns out that I may have misheard some those lyrics yet surely the word ‘freedom’ sums up the Swans live experience best?

My eyes are tightly shut through portions of the set but it’s worth opening them to see Gira conduct the rest of the band, arms flailing around and sweat pouring from his face. The band building to rattling crescendos as Gira flings his hands skyward. This is a man, and a band for that matter, that really put their heart and soul into what they do. You’re watching the band push themselves to their absolute limit and it’s hard to think that they’ll have to do it all again the very next night.

It’s hard not to miss the presence of percussive powerhouse Thor Harris but Gira, Norman Westberg, Christoph Hahn, Phil Puleo, Christopher Pravdica and Paul Wallfish put in an absolutely astounding performance. After a huge 2 and a half hour set they take a well-deserved bow. It’s been intense, exhausting and thoroughly unlike anything else you could hope to see. It’s difficult to imagine what comes next for the band yet Swans will no doubt continue to be an extremely powerful and unique live experience.

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