Into the Pit: 094: Swans – Live at KOKO – 28-October 2010

My first visit to Koko in about eleven years last night saw me head there for the return to London of Swans, of which more in a moment. But as always, I feel it’s notable to mention the organisation. Doors at 1900 – fine, and they opened on time, not to mention being friendly security who weren’t treating every punter as a criminal (a rare occurrance nowadays, sadly). What wasn’t quite so welcome was how late the gig itself was. Support James Blackshaw wasn’t onstage until 2100, and Swans until 2200 – meaning a pretty late finish for a midweek gig.

James Blackshaw
Live @ Koko, Camden Town
28 October 2010

Still, the music played over the PA was pleasant enough – a mix of old blues and country tracks, in the main, that wasn’t particularly instrusive. But a two hour wait did get a little frustrating at points.

The waiting was finally over when James Blackshaw took to the stage, although to start with you’d be forgiven for not noticing him – a seated solo guitarist under bare light at the front of the stage. Still, a fair amount of the talking stopped when he started playing – although not all of it, and it was clear that he was getting irritated with the noise level at points. It wasn’t difficult to see why, either, as his delicate compositions are really quite special if you can actually hear them. Why was also impressive was just how good a guitarist he is – it was clear that this is someone who is leagues ahead of their peers, and equally, it was clear at points just why Gira signed him to Young God Records – some of the darker moments you could just imagine him lending his deep voice to the guitar-led melodies. I ought now to go and hunt out his material – I’m interested to hear how he sounds when I can listen uninterupted.

Swans announced their arrival onstage by a low, ominous drone that continued for a long time, before one band member entered the stage and started a melody that heralded new album opener No Words/No Thoughts…but the waiting for the rest of the song went on for some while. The rest of the band took a further ten minutes to take the stage, and what is a ten minute track on CD was stretched out to a mighty half-an-hour, with every element of the track pulled outwards to breaking point. Gira has been on record as saying he copped out by making the track as short as he did on record, so what he did made sense – even if it appeared that he lost a handful of the crowd even by this point.

Clearly what Swans brought to the live environment didn’t work for everybody, but I’m not exactly sure what they were expecting – all live documents of Swans from their previous incarnation in the 80s and 90s are pretty much the last word in live brutality, testing the patience and endurance of their audiences by sheer volume alone, never mind the heavy experimentation and variation on well-known tracks. Happily enough for me, all of what made Swans so infamous back then as a live act were present and correct here, too. Ballads, or more to the point quieter, more reflective moments, were in short supply – in particular the glorious Reeling The Liars In, not to mention Failure, which was a shame – and eschewed for a set that was extraordinarily loud, punishing and utterly exhilarating.

As Gira had promised in interviews leading up to this tour, it was indeed a mix of new material and (very) old material from the 80s, the absence of Jarboe from the reconvened lineup resulting in a couple of my favourite albums being ignored completely (so that’s nothing from White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity, then. Oh well). But the vicious, throbbing power of oldies Your Property and a simply jaw-dropping I Crawled were more than enough, not to mention the religious, devotional fervour of Sex, God, Sex, which climaxed (pun intended) sounding like reaching a religious epiphany and a mind-blowing orgasm at the same time. Which, let’s be honest, is probably the point. The biggest tampering came with the other Children-era track played, Beautiful Child, barely recognisable at all until the vocals came in, although now I come to think about it I think it was actually played as part of My Birth, but I could be wrong. It was possibly the one disappointment of the evening, too – but that’s probably because I love the original so much, and you know what fanboys people can get like about their most precious and favourite songs, eh?

Swans setlist:
No Words/No Thoughts
Your Property
Sex, God, Sex
Untitled Instrumental
I Crawled
My Birth
Beautiful Child
Eden Prison

Little Mouth

What was really impressive too was just how well the new material fits with the old live – proving once and for all, perhaps, that this is no mere reformation for cash. This is Gira picking up where he left off, continuing his experimentation but also staying true to the power and feel of the band of old, and judging on the sweat on his brow and the anguished howls delivered from the stage, this is a man still capable of baring every inch of his soul when he needs to. Jim was ramped up to be a cacophonous, searing beast – a world away from the sparse, acoustic sketch that this song first debuted as a year ago, that heralded the return of Swans – while Eden Prison was barely recognisable at points as it closed the set after over ninety minutes of the most intense live gig I’ve ever seen.

The gig was also notable for perhaps the shortest encore I’ve ever seen – a short and utterly unexpected blast of noise from the entire band playing in lockstep, before segueing into a short portion of Little Mouth…and that was that. I first heard Swans back in, what, ’96, when I friend played me Soundtracks For The Blind and in the time since I’ve become a devoted fan. I missed the last show in London for reasons now lost in the mists of time, so to get another chance was to me one of the best things of this year – and to be rewarded with one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, not to mention the loudest, has lifted my mood immensely. Loud, you say? This was considerably louder than Spiritualized last year, and also a whole lot louder than Motorhead, too. But it’s not just noise for noise sake – this is concentrated, intense blasts of sound that are provided by a band back at the peak of their powers.

And if you’ve still not heard My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, I can’t tell you enough how much you are missing out. Gig of the year? I don’t care what follows this, nothing is going to top this.

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