Swans / Little Annie – Leeds University Stylus, 20th May 2017

Posted: 21 May 2017 in Live
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Christopher Nosnibor

I’m here as a paying punter. I’m here to pay tribute. As a fan of Swans from my mid-teens in the early 90s, I had never expected to see them play live. But the last seven years have yielded four albums of ever-expanding enormity and ambition; I’ve seen the band play not once, but three times, and had the opportunity to interview Michael Gira, an artist I’ve long admired. I’m here to experience that sonic force one last time, and to thank the band in my own small way for everything they’ve given since returning with My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky in 2010.

The crowd swells steadily during Little Annie’s performance. Little Annie may be petite, as her name suggests, but she’s an awesome presence. She has insane cheekbones and intense eyes – more than once she fixes on me and I feel as if she’s boring into my soul. I fear she knows I failed to complete and publish a review of State of Grace, her 2012 album with Baby Dee. I’m feeling a pang of guilt over it now: she really does have an incredible voice. Rich, with a deep grain and so much soul. Her rendition of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Shipbuilding’ packed so much emotion, and she remarked that she wished the song wasn’t still relevant today. Closing a set of originals and covers, she seemed genuinely moved by the enthusiastic and vocal audience response.

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Little Annie

Between acts, I was surprised to learn just how many of those who packed down the front were not hardened Swans gig-goers, but first-times, many half my age and only relatively recently acquainted with the band (standing there, on my own, sporting a fedora and a shirt with the Greed cover art on the front seemed a prompt for people to gravitate toward me and strike up conversations for some reason). I told them to get to the bar and get themselves some earplugs if they wanted to live.

Swans take to the stage at 8:30 prompt and begin to work a single throbbing drone. Ten to fifteen minutes later, not much has changed beyond the volume and intensity with which it’s played. Whereas once Swans were all about delivering a sustained and brutal assault, latter day Swans are very much focused on the slow-build.

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Swans

“I hope they play ‘Screen Shot’ one enthusiastic youth had said to me beforehand. Having done a spot of research on Setlist.FM, I was fairly confident that they would but instead pointed out that Swans’ live sets were less song-orientated and primarily concerned with the end-to-end succession of ebbs and flows and immense, sustained crescendos. They do play ‘Screen Shot’, and, indeed, the set broadly has the shape of the performance captured on the new live album Deliquescence. In other words, the bulk of the set is centred around ever-evolving performances of material from The Glowing Man and contains extended workouts unavailable in studio form and developed through the live performances. This may be the final tour of this iteration of the band, but they’re not looking back: there’s no ‘Oxygen’ or ‘A Little God in My Hands’, and there’s sure as hell no ‘Your Property’ or any other material hauled from the back catalogue to pander to any old-timers hankering after the classics of the band’s previous existence.

During tonight’s show, from my vantage in the front row, it’s hard to be certain if they achieve the totally annihilative volume I’ve witnessed previously, on account of the fact I’m in the front row. While the full force of Norman Westberg’s guitar and Christopher Pravdica’s bass amps blasting me at face level, and the band’s staggeringly vast backline being the primary source of sound, the comparative levels of the drums and vocals through the PA are dramatically reduced.

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Swans

Westberg’s patient guitar playing – he chews gum and nonchalantly cranks out a single chord for an eternity without blinking – sits perfectly against Pravdica’s tetchy, repetitive grooves, while Christoph Hahn remains dapper, hair slicked back, while torturing lap steel in the most unimaginable and sadistic of fashions.

The absence of Thor Harris does have an effect on the sound: the burly, hirsute percussionist brought heightened detail and texture to the band’s immense sound and both he and his huge gong brought something to the visual aspect of the show. Not that thee six men on stage produce a sound which lacks depth, range and detail, tonally or musically, and similarly, to witness six musicians play so cohesively, so naturally, while working so incredibly hard is quite something to behold. The expressions on their faces are of intense concentration but they do occasionally shoot one another knowing smiles and even break big grins from time to time. Gira’s unique and inimitable style of conducting his companions and the way the sound seems to be shaped, sculpted in real-time by his flailing arms and stomping feet isn’t a sight one easily forgets.

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Swans

Perhaps even more than on the swirling, two-hour long exploration which is The Glowing Man, the band’s – and no doubt given his recent comments about the future direction of the Swans project in its next phase – Gira’s growing interest in evolving a more abstract style of musical form is placed into sharp relief over the course of this endurance test of a set comprising a mere five pieces and with a duration fractionally in excess of two and a half houurs. He has the lyrics on laminated A4 sheets on a stand in front of him, but his vocal utterances are few and far between, and when not consisting of wordless drones and ululations, the syllables are elongated to abstraction and unintelligibility. This isn’t a problem or a criticism: it simply illustrates Gira’s move towards exploring the language of sound without the need for actual language.

After the show has been brought to a shuddering climax, they stand in line to receive a lengthy – and more than well-deserved – ovation. Gira introduces the players in turn before they take three long, leisurely and appreciative bows. We know we’ve witnessed something special, and, moreover, there is a sense of occasion. This is the end of an era. It’s been scary, unsettling, and nothing short of amazing. Swans: we thank you.

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