Swans leader Michael Gira once said the band’s mission is to fuck your insides, in “that deep sex death place in your stomach”. The band’s live reputation is a mix of urban myth and early-80s No Wave doctrine: mass seizures, vomiting, perforated eardrums, Gira locking doors and turning off air conditioning, just for starters. After their 13 years in the wilderness, State witnessed the newly-resurrected Swans at Primavera in 2011 from the back, on the edge of the blast crater in the wide open. But Swans in an upstairs club with wooden floors is a different beast. The sign outside Sound Control in Manchester reads: “WARNING: The music tonight will be exceedingly loud!” The exclamation mark makes it all seem so innocent.
“There are millions and millions of stars… in your eyes,” Gira drawls over and over in crucifixion pose, eyes rolling in his head. Opener ‘To Be Kind’ is an unrecorded song that’s been evolving on the road, its infrasound drone and pedal steel wail opening a portal to God knows where. Gira claws at the air, gorging on the crowd’s trepidation, eyeballing his five co-Swans as they wait for the sign. After 10 minutes that sign comes – his rising leg and downward stomp, Hulk-style, fusing the six in a Semtex blast, vibrations like bullets coming through the floorboards as the cauldron boils over for the first time.
The after-shocks last two-and-a-half hours, as current album The Seer is devoured and retched back up, its primal repetition and brimstone riffs shape-shifting into new entities as Gira conducts his band using a syntax of contortions, sneers and palm movements. ‘Avatar’ is battered into next week by the two drummers, Phil Puleo and Thor Harris (yes, Thor), whose tubular bell intonations add a stateliness to the gallop, as Gira preaches: “Your life… is in my hands.” ‘The Seer’ is longer than some bands’ sets, with the song itself snaking through around 10 acts, the dulcimer and church bell drone intro giving way to blunt trauma guitar slabs, gong crashes and Gira’s lofty incantation: “I see it all, I see it all, I see it all, I see it all…”.
Once in traction, a Swans show can’t be stopped. They bust an amp, shrug and hit the downbeats harder. Thor breaks the strings on his home-made violin thing and just beats it with a stick. They play only six or seven songs, each 20, 30, 50 minutes long, but there aren’t any borders, no 1,2,3,4 count-ins, no between-song banter, apart from “thank you very much boys and girls”.
When Gira breathed life back into Swans in 2010 he furiously stressed that it wasn’t about “the good old days or some shit”. It wasn’t a reunion, but a revival. There’d be no full-album heritage gigs or retrospectives. As with the tour for their last album, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, the shows for The Seer are split between songs on the new record and unrecorded passages forged on stage and in rehearsals before shows. In Manchester the only concession to Swans’ nihilist post-punk industrial past is 1986’s ‘Coward’, and at a mere 10 minutes it’s the only ‘conventional’ song of the set. ‘Conventional’ is relative though – Gira reels backwards from each 1,2,3 atonal guitar drill, stabbing his chest with the mic, whispering: “stick a knife in me… stick a knife in me… I’m useless… I’m useless… I love you.” It’s romance, Swans-style.
Gira said he killed Swans in 1997 because it had been “15 years of being kicked up a set of stairs by some moronic gladiator or something”. Now he’s back, taking these kicks on the chin, begging for it. On the half-hour finale ‘The Apostate’, he’s writhing on the floor, slapping his face, swallowing the microphone, swinging the guitar like a battle axe, hair matted to his face. He stalks each member in a circle, chanting like a voodoo Damo Suzuki: “We’re on a ladder to God… we’re on a ladder to God…” arms aloft as Phil Puleo finishes the show, his arms like two battering rams trying their best to puncture his drum skins, and then it just stops, silence.
When they smile, link arms and bow, Broadway-style, it’s another left field moment: it really is just six humans after all. Michael Gira still maintains that on stage, “I’m just holding this piece of wood with some wires on it”, but he’s convinced me that Swans in 2012 is the greatest live band in the world. And I thought I’d seen it all.