From the moment the speakers spew forth with a low, loud thrum and the hammer dulcimer commences its hollow pulse – we are already deep under the mystical spell of the Swans. Like a cloak of snow it extends heavily and thickly, the sound filling our ears and our pores with its dark deep primordial rhythms.
Michael Gira is half-hunched over his black guitar, he looks to the bassist Chris Pravdica and back to Phil Puleo on drums who sits toward the back of the stage. Flanking the bassist on the right of stage is a ghostly pale Norman Westberg on guitar with tattooed sleeves and a slightly bewildered look; to the left of stage, is the wizened Christoph Hahn, with two lap steel guitars on platforms, and behind him sits Thor Harris the percussionist.
From the moment they strike their instruments it is apparent that they too are under Gira’s command. He is the conductor, and with his eyes, his shoulders and the neck of the bridge he directs and diverts. The band look to him for guidance and temperance within each song, at one point – he sharply reprimands the percussionist – like an army sergeant he points at the offender and back to his eyes – ‘watch me or else’ is what is conveyed.
It is loud, our ears are quivering with the power emitting from two Orange amps that glow with neon piping and the huge amps and bass cabs that sit underneath them.
Thor Harris the percussionist has an array of accoutrements, animal-skin drum, hanging pipes that he pounds with a hammer and a massive fuck-off gong.
Christoph Hahn, with all the style and solemn assurance of Jonny Depp in Crybaby, produces a comb and deftly swipes either side of his head in broad, luxuriant strokes. He pockets the comb and returns to his two lap steel guitars – flicking at them with his silver thimbled fingers and strumming dark and powerful sounds.
Gira is a mouth-dancer. He purses and puckers with half-closed eyes as he sways with his guitar tucked under arm. His long laments would cause you to stop dead in your tracks – as it is you are mesmerised. His voice soars above the intricate cacophony of two drum kits, bass and three guitars.
There is something fatigued about his face, full of world-worn wisdom. His singing evokes desolate, gothic landscapes. You can see how artists like Nick Cave must have been struck by these evocations of emotion and their true complement in sound.
At what seemed like midpoint, well, only in hindsight because time is distilled in such a way that you barely notice its passing… Either as a confirmation of atheism or a religious invocation, Gira summons ‘JESUS, come on DOWN’ and again ‘JEEESUS’ building in rage and volume, and the crowd is enthralled, incapable of tearing their eyes away, unable to deny the power of Gira’s delivery and emphatic call.
The drummer Phil Puleo’s jazz-like tempest is often the perfect companion to the droning guitars, and indeed these instruments are played percussively with sudden tirades and impulses that a compelling exploration of rhythm.
Gira, who has put down his guitar, suddenly starts hitting either side of his face with the flat of his hand; in time with the drums – he yells “Get out!” over and over, in what could be an erratic display of Tourette’s syndrome; but rather feels like the inevitable bodily expression of the music, and the emotion behind it.
And now it is Thor Harris administering screams of the clarinet, shrill darts above the intense drone of the drums, bass and guitars. There is a constant tension in letting every chord have its due, every beat and stroke given its full sensory absolution.
As a participant, because no other observation has ever been so involved, you cannot help but be floored by the experience of seeing Swans play live. The yearning expression of a lost state that we all crave; the challenge of playing an instrument to push against the edges of sound, stamina or expression; these are all things that Swans convey.
And Gira, singing “I am free” in his final elegy, swoops down to put on his ten-gallon hat and is vividly and completely present: a commanding figure from some uncharted past.
– Anaya Latter