Swans – review

Brighton Concorde

The live reputations of few bands precede them quite like that of Swans. Their approach had admittedly mellowed slightly by the time frontman Michael Gira disbanded the group in 1997, but it's their mid-to-late-80s gigs that people still talk about in hushed tones: tales abound of grinding, relentless, brutally grim music at such volume that audience members vomited and the police were called. Some of the tales might be apocryphal – on Wikipedia, the one about the puking fans comes with the dread words "citation needed" attached – but they presumably still partly account for the atmosphere tonight before the recently reactivated band take the stage: not so much anticipation as trepidation.

The audience don't seem much reassured by the opening number, No Words/No Thoughts. If the volume isn't emetic, it's still a remarkably draining experience. The intro, which appears to last longer than some bands' careers, consists of a single, pounding chord, improbably decorated with tubular bells and a distressing, keening noise that appears to be emanating from a pedal steel guitar. When the song ends, there's a smattering of applause that quickly dies away into a weird, rather eerie pin-drop silence, as if the crowd are still nervous of what might happen next.

The setlist stretches back to 1984's Your Property and I Crawled, a quarter of a century during which the emotional temperature of Swans' music has seldom shifted from impossibly bleak – "I am sexless! I am foul! I am ignorant! I am hateful!" bellows Gira during Sex God Sex, but not all their material is as irrepressibly cheery as that. Nevertheless, there's substantially more light and shade in their music than the all-pervading aura of misery might suggest.

Jim has a countryish lilt, albeit a doom-laden one, while the most striking thing about the show might not be the repetition or molasses pace at which everything progresses, but Gira's voice: a weathered, smoky, rather lovely croon that cuts through the tumult of their sound. It's fair to say that's not the lasting impression one might have expected to leave a Swans' gig with: pleasing proof they can outstrip even the most fearsome reputation.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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