Swans in The Button Factory, Dublin, on May 25th 2015
Michael Gira has been at the helm of the noise behemoth that is Swans since the early ‘80s. Following a period of dissolution in 1998 (during which Gira busied himself with Angels Of Light) the band returned in 2010, re-igniting a run of critically lauded albums and heavy touring. Swans’ recorded material is a journey in itself, not least all two hours of last year’s ‘To Be Kind’, but the live experience is another thing entirely. Rarely do shows have the intensity and carnal power that this six-strong outfit can muster; dark, muscular experimental soundscapes unfold as the room before them reverberates under the weight of their yield.
Challenging, inventive experimentation isn’t just the domain of tonight’s headliners, as Okkyung Lee enters alone and begins to scratch out rasping discord on her cello. Snarls and groans seem to shake from the instrument as Lee frantically jabs and scrapes – a deep bellow effect one second and a more skitterish movement the next. Her hand zooms up and down the neck – seemingly haphazard yet completely deliberate – as the cello suddenly transforms into a percussive instrument, fingers and bow tapping and bouncing off the strings. It’s a fascinating rendering of sounds from an instrument not usually associated with such abrasive tones, and a fitting precursor to imminent auditory heft.
Swans’ percussionist Thor Harris stands with his back to the audience, heralding the beginning as the hammered waves from his gong grow larger, and cymbal washes and the pulsating airs of Frankie M begin to stretch out. Guitarists Norman Westberg and Christopher Hahn flank the rest, the jaws of both men in constant chewing motion as if fighting the tension from within. Gira conducts from centre stage, and the band defer to him; all eyes on his actions, waiting for him to cue the inevitable release of energy they have been steadily harnessing. He chants, one foot slightly raised off the ground – primed. Hahn’s right hand becomes a blur at the lap steel as the song intensifies, the volume suddenly seeming to lurch up a few notches through a dense, repetitive opener.
Gira waves his hands in a forward/back motion, lost in a trance in the Hendrix pomp of A Little God In My Hands. “Funky”, he announces after calling the song to a halt with a dropped knee towards Westberg. “Normally I pounce around a little more, but I threw my back out” Gira smiles at one point, but his is still the most dynamic presence onstage. He prowls up to each member; inciting sonic violence and signalling each twist and turn in a song with a gesture from head or hand.
Hahn scours his fretboard as Gira’s vocal duels it out with the abrasion of Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett), hands flailing by his head. Harris meanwhile seems the busiest man up there, surrounded by steel and wires – bells, horns, and a wealth of percussive delights – tapping melodically while cacophonous mayhem erupts around him.
The closing of Bring the Sun / Black Hole Man goes on for an age, building to an incredible crescendo of crashing guitar chords, and the band variously weighs in then hangs back to let Gira dictate where the next will fall. There is just so much going on at any given time during the band’s set – especially Thor’s multi-instrumental performance nestled in at the back – that your eyes are constantly drawn from one player to the next, each seamlessly building up that relentless aural assault. Tonight’s is another blistering, tinnitus flaring set from a finely tuned outfit. Swans are simply one of the most viscerally exciting live acts operating at the minute.