Swans – The Gate

Posted: 24 October 2015 in Albums

Young God Records – YG2015 – 1st October 2015

Christopher Nosnibor

Before my copy even arrived, this limited, hand-numbered website-only fundraiser CD for the next Swans studio album – the last in their current incarnation had sold out. So why review it? Because. In case you’re in doubt, this is no press lig. This isn’t a special favour. It’s a piece I feel compelled to write.

Swans are a band whose ‘post-reformation’ works have divided fans more than critics, yet have seen their fan-base expand in a way they never saw during the entirety of their initial 15-year incarnation.

The Gate is a two-disc effort that captures Swans on their last tour, and as such, combines tracks from To Be Kind in post-release evolution, and the genesis and early development of material that will likely appear on their upcoming final album, wrapped up with some basic demos for said album. As such, it’s a pause for reflection, while also a preliminary insight into what’s to come; it certainly doesn’t feel like some kind of stop-gap filler. Then, of course, there’s the fact that they have – or, specifically Michael Gira has – gone to great lengths to produce a work of not only exceptional audio quality, but which is housed in the now-customary hand-made and decorated sleeves, signed and individually numbered. Fundraiser it may be, but quick, casual cash-in, it is most certainly not.

Disc one contains three tracks and has a running time of some 76 minutes. The 29-minute rendition of ‘Frankie M’ – as yet unreleased in studio from – in itself encapsulates the Swans live experience in 2014. The builds aren’t simply long and deliberate, but redefine the meaning of both, while the crescendos are beyond immense. Empires rise and fall in less time than it takes for Gira’s vocals to begin, and when they do, the hypnotic repetition and repeated ebb and flow is the song’s key motif. It isn’t until the 24-minute mark that it really explodes. Gira’s liner notes suggest the studio version will be ‘unrecognizable’: it’s going to have to be one hell of a transformation to top the megalithic wall-of-noise climax they’ve created and captured here.

Gira writes that he was pleased to put ‘A Little God in My Hands’ to bed after the band’s extensive tour in support of To Be Kind: the version here builds on the groove the album and drags it out for the best part of a quarter of an hour, with explosive, convulsive blasts of noise that would have probably shaken the foundations pf the venue. As for the 33-minute take on ‘Apost/Cloud of Unforming’, the first occasion on which the band canned the regular ending to ‘The Apostate’ and evolved the improvised ‘Cloud of Unknowing’… wow.

‘Just a Little Boy’ opens disc two, a stark, hypnotic droning affair which bears only a passing resemblance to the studio version, and the embryonic ‘Cloud of Forgetting’ is spectacularly immersive. The centrepiece is undoubtedly the 28-minute ‘Bring the Sun / Black Eyed Man’, which builds early to an almost unbearable crescendo and maintains it for what feels like an eternity. A recording will never capture the full impact of the multisensory, transcendental experience that is a Swans live performance, but in a simple assessment of the audio, The Gate provides one of the strongest live documents of Swans you’re likely to hear (and I say that as someone who adores Public Castration is a Good Idea, but equally realises that what that album captures in terms of sheer brutality, something of the sonic impact is strangely and sadly lost).

The five demo recordings are very different. On the Young God website write-up of the album, Gira describes the recordings as ‘crude’, and indeed, featuring just Gira with his guitar, they’re but fragments, sketches of ideas hammered out, picked and strummed, and only two or three minutes in length.

In many ways, it’s hard to envision how these sparse snippets will evolve into the monumental beasts that go beyond the notion of mere music, made not by human hands but by the very forces of nature. But Gira’s extensive notes are illuminating, with numerous references to ‘groove’ (two of the demos carry the working titles New Rhythm Thing’ and ‘Red Rhythm Thing’) and he writes of his intention to evolve the material with his fellow band-members.

It’s intriguing, of course, to be presented with these pieces before their development, rather than after: most bands will only release demos – often partially evolved studio versions – of songs once they’ve been released, giving fans an orchestrated and somewhat contrived impression that they’re revealing a facet of their working methods, but for Swans, it’s all out there, raw, unplanned, while evidencing from just what small acorns the their mighty oaks which spread to a truly cosmic scale grow.

The end may be nigh for Swans in their current form, but The Gate reminds us much they’ve given during the last few years, and promises a more than fitting finale to this phase of the band’s career.

Swans - The Gate

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