concert review by Ioana Nica
SWANS. You either love it or hate it. But I bet those who hate it don’t have valid arguments against it. SWANS is visceral and unconventional and made no exception in Ancienne Belgique on 25 September.
Before the concert, Ancienne Belgique organized a free public interview with Michael Gira, according to him: “the first and the last” Q&A session ever done right before a show. Pretty remarkable to have the opportunity of being so close to the real gentleman who is Mr Gira, especially that all we had to do was sign up and send by email any questions we might have had (a big thank you to the organizers). Considerate, funny, and extremely articulate, none of his words were out of the context and messages were clearly conveyed. He talked about his first experiences in Belgium in the ‘80s, the beginnings of reshaping SWANS in 2010, the artists he had as opening acts, the challenges encountered with his independent record label “Young God Records”.
What took you so long, motherfuckers …
… was Gira’s answer to an interview remark that more and more people are going to SWAN concerts nowadays. The show in AB was close to sold-out and had a setlist of two hours built around tracks from the latest album, To Be Kind.
Sounds extended to infinity
The hypnotic repetitions lead to live tracks of considerable length. An invitation to join trance-inducing states of mind via a brutal and rough sound which gets richer and richer with every added layer.
At 8:15pm Thor Harris started the sermon by hitting the gongs. Phil Puleo joined him (together they will form a core duo, essential and remarkable during the entire performance). First layer of strings was added by the lap steel guitarist Christoph Hahn and all together build up a suspense until the other members of band joined in, the bassist Chris Pravdica, the guitarist Norman Westberg and, of, course, Michael Gira.
Borderline catharsis and auto-mutilation, irresistible nevertheless, “Frankie M” was opening the set. The introduction was developed into a recurrent and persistent phrase which stoned the audience for half an hour. It seemed almost never-ending and casted a feeling of desperation in the air, until the bass line of “A Little God in my Hands” announced a totally different continuation, funkier, more vocal, still at a double length than on the record. Gira’s voice is just another added layer, moaning on “A Little God in My Hand” or deceivingly shouting on the “Just a Little Boy.” No projections, no lights show, just continuous sound and energy coming from the stage. Very long tracks of repetitive rhythms circularly combined and played extremely loud like an exorcising ritual of calling out for unquiet spirits. The closing track “Black Hole Man,” highlighted altogether the highpoints in which the entire show was soaking.
I guess it’s difficult and inappropriate to rate and make comparisons between SWANS’ performances once you have the basics (awesome musicians and a good sound) covered. A SWANS’s concert is primarily an experience. On stage, Gira give everything he has and becomes everything: a shaman, a conductor, a performer, he loses his mind but stays in control. The very best definition of power: to be exposed and untouchable at the same time. A captivating encounter which draws you within the show, demagnetizes you and spits you back into the world, most probably changed for life.
A few words about Pharmakon
Pharmakon, the opening act for SWANS, is Margaret Chardiet, from New York. A sound sculpting project of 5 years already. In a world dominated by male artists, Pharmakon builds her own universe of noise music. Alone of stage doing her stuff or down in the audience, freaking everybody out with screaming and shouting and ain’t giving a damn about the microphone wire which was scrambling among the participants feet, she’s always searching for a connection with the audience.
To witness bands like SWANS nowadays it’s a privilege. Actually there are not so many bands who, instead of making a “reunion” or “reinventing themselves”, take it from where they left it, and bring their art further.
Times are different now than they were back in the 80s. Today, there are enthusiastic beginnings in music everywhere. How many of them will last… At the interview, Michael Gira was speaking about the difficulties of selling the records for the new bands he had published at “Young God Records”, due to the changes in paradigm brought by the internet. It’s a pretty current phenomenon and it’s not the first time we hear this from an artist. But a sad thought is haunting me since then: the thought of the unborn legacies of artists like Gira who are forces by the circumstances to give up standing godfather for them.
A Little God In My Hands
Just a Little Boy
Bring the Sun / Black Hole Man