The Button Factory is thronged for a band whose reputation, more so than most live acts, precedes them – renown for punishingly load, confrontational sets, where pure sound noise displaces any hint of melody. Swans – or rather main man Michael Gira and the current incarnation of his project, a line-up which is proving increasingly durable – have mutated over the years from their origins in the late ’70s New York No Wave scene. Although songs are still lengthy, loud, and full of reverb and sculpted feedback, they have evolved to the extent where their music could now be described as often hitting the sweet spot where Delta (or Chicago) Blues meets Thrash (or Doom) Metal. However, in the experimental avant garde noise stakes, they can still make Sonic Youth sound like One Direction.
It can be difficult to write a traditional review of a Swans gig, as it’s often hard to discern what tune they are performing at any given time. Songs are apt to change in the live context from the blueprint of the recorded album version. Plus, they tend to insert a plethora of unreleased material at will. Gira and Co. kick of with a new song which has become a recent live staple, ‘To Be Kind’, which sounds like medieval monks doing Gregorian chant over fuss pedal drone. It sets the tone for the evening, which comprises variations on much of 2012’s excellent The Seer album.
Gira frequently functions as conductor, a lightening rod for the band’s intensity; but at the same time, this group of musicians is very much a solid unit, playing off each other, with an almost intuitive feel for the improvisational directions any given piece can take. They are all alert to their surroundings, their attention staying focussed at every given moment to possibilities thrown out by any individual member. Gira undoubtedly looks the part, whether it’s when laying into his battered black Gibson 335, or standing guitarless in more typical frontman mode, his sweat-drenched black shirt making him resemble a mutant scion of Johnny Cash.
They climax with The Seer’s ‘Toussaint Louverture Song’, about the 18th century Haitian revolutionary. There’s no encore, but at over two hours at this pitch, there’s hardly any need for one. It certainly ranks in the top three shows I’ve seen all year thus far. In a word: visceral.