Reviewing Swans in the traditional sense is a difficult task.
The music of Michael Gira’s celebrated American ensemble seems not so much to resist description as to exist in a place so totally beyond description itself that words are incapable of encapsulating the experience.
Watching them on what may well be their last ever tour, I realise just how far the standard journalistic tidbits – ‘visceral’, ‘raw’, or ’abrasive’ – fall short, seeming trite in comparison to the reality of the band’s performance.
The idea of the concert as religious experience springs quickly to mind: another cliché deployed too liberally, it is nonetheless the closest I can come to summing up Swans live.
As the band commence their set with tracks from later records The Seer and To Be Kind, the crowd sways back and forth as one enraptured mass – no phones, no drunken patter – keeping time with…what?
It appears to be some primal force other than the music, shuddering and arrhythmic as that often is.
Frontman Gira gesticulates wildly with arms and hands; a mad preacher on the streets of a burning Rome.
His voice – which, given Swans’ notorious loudness, could so easily be drowned out by the instrumentation – instead soars above the music, allowing his Biblical incantations to cut through.
On ‘Cloud of Forgetting’ from 2016’s The Glowing Man, a repeated chant of “children, I am blind!” conjures a demented, eyeless King Lear, guitars squalling hellishly behind him like a thunderstorm.
There are moments of more conventional musicianship to hang on to: during Christopher Pravdica’s tense bass intro to ‘Screen Shot’, more than a few heads start to bang (in spite of Gira’s publicised disdain for the practise).
Amongst the other band members, drummer Phil Puelo shines: a second kick drum turned up towards him serves as an improvised timpani for him to hammer during the heavier tracks.
But while the band sound fantastic on their own terms, it’s clear that all take their cue from Gira.
Like Mark E. Smith’s stewardship of The Fall, peaks and troughs in the music are guided by capricious waves of the frontman’s hand, while songs are brought to juddering halts with the slap of a knee.
Halfway through ‘Cloud of Unknowing’, as if to remind us that this is a gig after all (and not actually a black mass), the stage fuse blows.
Gira jokes that after having tried to talk to God through his music, this electrical smiting may be God talking back to him.
The band reconvene ten minutes later to pick up where they left off, only for the power to fail for a second time.
It’s a welcome interruption, reminding the audience that regular human beings have been creating these supernatural sounds, rendering their feat all the more incredible.
A pounding rendition of ‘I Am The Sun’ concludes Swans’ two-and-a-half hour set, much of which will remain ringing in the ears of attendees for the rest of the night – perhaps even for a lifetime.
Words: Graham Neil Gillespie