Scraps of paper, tape or paint chippings falling from the ceiling, that’s the thing I remember most about seeing Swans at the O2 Ritz in Manchester. It wasn’t such an unusual sight to see these pieces fall into the crowd, coming from the rafters and lighting bars above, but at Swans there was a noticeable amount. I watched them fall as the music hit my ears with full force, I watched as another pointed to them hit the floor, manufactured snowflakes. Noise makes movements, and Swans makes noise. The pieces falling were a display of just how much.
Swans arrived on stage promptly, not a moment too soon, not a moment too late, and not all that long after Anna Von Hausswolff warmed up the crowd with her blend of noise folk. Think a softer Swans but with smatterings of heavy hitting dance like beats. Despite shared genres, shared tastes, and shared space, Anna Von Hausswolff offered a welcome contrast to the sheer ferocity Swans brought to us all, a more digestible form that Swans felt necessary to shed from their own live set.
You see, Swans live and Swans on record are two very different beasts, and liking one doesn’t provide a guarantee on liking the other. After the no wave classics of the 80’s, Swans took to folk music, introduced guests (from Alan Sparhawk to Karen O), dabbled with samples, and since the bands 2010 return, the records have been two-hour epics, moving between every variation of Swans that ever existed. But live, it’s all about the aggression, the noise.
That’s what it was always about.
Focusing largely on the heaviest material from 2014’s ‘To Be Kind’ and this years ‘The Glowing Man’, the show was loud enough to make those pieces from the opening fall, powerful enough to push fingers into ears, and tough enough to replicate the sensation of a vice being pressed against a skull. Don’t try that one at home. This is why Anna Von Hausswolff was so crucial to the set, her band offered the other half.
The thing is, if the music couldn’t provide any of this, the show would have been a wash out. It had to sound this aggressive, it had to be this loud, it had to live up to the myth. It was an endurance test for the most hardened of Swans fans, a test which resulted in finding emotion and feelings within all the noise, as it was present deep within all the feedback. Trust me, you just had to let it smother you.
It was a serious show, no doubt about it, with front man Michael Gira trying to maintain full control of every element. He conducted his band with the push of his guitar, the point of his finger, and the running of his mouth. He even spent time between songs to criticise the person in charge of lighting, and told one fan not to do something or other, but it was hard to see what. Maybe he was standing wrong. This was his world, this was his show, this was his night. Not yours, his. This makes it impossible to detach the artist from the music, which is a little discomforting.
Enlightenment was the thing Michael Gira was pushing with the release of ‘The Glowing Man’ and whilst I personally didn’t find enlightenment through the record, no matter how many times I played it to my neighbours despair, it was easier to latch onto the idea live, as thoughts were drowned out by the droning build ups, the stretched out lyrics, and eventual explosion of noise. It all seemed to be building up to the title track of the latest release, a killer noise rock classic that brought about fifty year old mosh pits and hands in the air. It was all building to that one moment, and I guess it was worth it.