Swans: Sound Control, Manchester


Swans unleash their hammer of the gods in Manchester, Getintothis’ Peter Guy witnesses something close to biblical.

Nothing can prepare you for Swans.
Much has been said and written about Michael Gira‘s New York collective in the build up to their three-date UK tour, but such hyperbole seems understated, throwaway and utterly underwhelming with what unfolds in Manchester.
What unfolds is complete annihilation of the senses.
An unimaginable beautiful primal ferocity which refuses to relent until one hundred and thirty five biblical minutes have been driven home to their majestic conclusion.
This is a tour de force which consumes your very being; hurtles into soul, churns your innards, throttles every muscle, gushing blood through every artery before slamming the exit door in a state of complete calm while leaving you in a state of exhilarated exhaustion.
Nothing can prepare you for Swans.
In a stroke of black comedic genius, Sir Richard Bishop opens the evening with a breezy, blues cartoon-like hoedown.
All whirling guitar country, the former Sun City Girls composer whisks a frothy malaise which is a six-fingered, buck-tooth away from Deliverance.
Yet this inconsequential levity acts as a musical wrong-turn before the punishingly brutal second chapter.
As Michael Gira and his five brothers take their positions a low whirring hum breaks out. Gira, in a move which will be echoed throughout, begins circling his arms – almost as if he is about to take off – while simultaneously orchestrating those around him and those in attendance.
The whirring builds, Gira intones in a deep Mephistopheles croon, and after ten minutes of hypnotic mesmerism the first tidal wave of sonic battering is delivered. It is like having the top of your head severed clean off.
Much talk pre-show concerns their epic take on loud – there’s Mogwai loud, there’s Motorhead loud, there’s Sunn O))) loud, there’s My Bloody Valentine loud – then there’s a whole other realm of loud: Swans are the lone tyrants of this plain.
Phil Puleo and Chris Pravdica operate a twin-attack juggernaut; a persistent percussive sledgehammer and slow grind bass which even when taking a back seat from knocking your cranium into submission, hover like great white sharks ready for the next strike.
Either side of the stage comes the ritualistic metallic textured washes of thunder as guitarist Norman Westberg, rarely moving from his fixed upright position, and the seated pedal steel player Christoph Hahn, all distant pitch-black stares and the type of facial contours you could chart a mountain range in, pave the way for sheer sheets of white noise.
Then there’s the imposing figure of the brilliantly-named, granite-formed Thor Harris – bare-chested he stalks the back of the stage assessing an array of instrumentation like a sadist assesses his next tortuous move on an unwilling victim.
During a quite horrific abyss-like passage of Avatar he reaches for a set of hammers and begins slamming a sequence of long piercing notes on what appear to be a hanging stone glockenspiel. The notes ring long and true making your eyes weep.
Gira, meanwhile, fiddles with his axe, toying with the steel strings before slamming his hand into the body of his instrument – and with it too, he unleashes hell.
A hell which sounds like no other, a sound which doesn’t just shake the very foundations of the room, have people drop their plastic cups of beer and go scuttling off to the bar for ear plugs, it’s a sound which consumes and grips you tight – you’re forced to enter the very eye of this cataclysmic storm, completely unaware what awaits on the other side.
Yet, while many bands derive a perverse pleasure in making your ears bleed they do so sacrificing nuance, detail and tonality. Swans are an altogether different beast.
No matter how hard Puleo’s malevolent venom is enacted behind the kit you can always hear Hahn’s sinister spine-removing reverb, no matter how murderously Westberg ravages his fretboard, you can still pick out Harris’ funereal violin march and no matter how painful the collective rumble from all five players amounts to, you can still hear every last banshee howl that Gira lets rip from deep down beneath his sweet-sodden black attire.
This is a loud you’ve never heard in this context before, however it is a necessity – it is one factor in the complete mystical force which binds together such a powerful whole. It’s part of the reason why it’s transportative and is deeply rooted in ambient dissonance of Now Wavers Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham.
But Swans aren’t letting go. They remain tight and exact until the very last tremor.
While certain sections of the crowd retreat to watch the gig from the downstairs bar’s television sets the majority that remain witness the mid set monster Coward from 1986’s Holy Money; it’s perhaps the pinnacle of the evenings savagery.
Robotic in structure, Gira treads the stage from right to left constructing eternally drawn out guitar leviathans which are as sexually magnetic as they are cold, concrete and industrial. Then he charges, leaps and slams another of those bowel-bursting hammer-blows which threaten to break open your mind.
The process is repeated for over 30 minutes – during which Gira unfurls those arms like a hawk’s wings summoning you into his reach, then he twists his neck and begins spitting into the air. Spit and sweat drip off his face and onto the stage floor as the band play on. It’s pure unadulterated abandon.
After more than two hours, addressing ‘his children’, Gira asks the crowd with grim satisfaction if they can ‘sustain one more?’ With two members of the audience having passed out, the band are unremitting, after the title track to this year’s The Seer was dispatched earlier, they close with that record’s other titanic cut – The Apostate.
A cavernous descent into the outer reaches of sound is beckoned from the trio’s guitars, as Puleo trades thwacks with Harris, who has by now set upon assaulting two huge gongs either side of his prehistoric frame in what can only be described as a Tolkienistic wet dream.
The repetition of two hours and more reaches frenzied delirium as Gira wails amid the cacophony ‘We’re on a ladder to God!‘ before the entire movement collapses in upon itself and the only noise you can hear is the soft air of the five musicians taking a well deserved bow to unanimous, wide-eyed applause.
Our friend says it is the finest show he’s ever witnessed. We leave completely overwhelmed and for days after all sound seems inconsequential.
Nothing can prepare you for Swans.
Swans set list at Manchester Sound Control
1. To Be Kind
2. Avatar
3. Fun
4. Coward
5. The Seer
6. (Unknown)
7. The Apostate

Images from Swans official site.