Into the Pit: 153: Swans – Live at KOKO – 15-November 2012

It isn’t often that I’m left with a feeling of slight nervousness prior to a gig, but then, Swans aren’t really your average band. One of the most extreme “rock” bands to exist, perhaps – their extremity being being louder, more punishing mentally and physically than just about anyone else – were ended by Michael Gira in 1997/98, and laid dormant, apparently for ever, for twelve years before Gira announced, out of the blue, that they were to be re-constituted. Less of a reunion than a picking up where they left off, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky was an extraordinary album (particularly for a first album in thirteen years), and the show that I witnessed that autumn following release was frankly one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

Sir Richard Bishop
Live @ KOKO, London NW1
15 November 2012

So that nervousness? Well, that partly came from the promise by Gira early in the year in an interview that the new tour would be eschewing old material, instead looking to the present and future – and the killer point was that the gigs were to be “three hours or so”. Fuck.

He wasn’t kidding, either, in terms of set length – the notices at the entrance had Swans on at 2110 or so, and finishing at 2350. And before that, there was Sir Richard Bishop, who much like James Blackshaw last time, was a solo guitarist who managed to be ear-bleedingly loud at points, taking in various guitar styles and musical styles in his set. Interesting for a while, but honestly not really my bag.

Waiting over, at last, this time there were no extended, patience draining intros from Swans, who instead took the stage, and having eventually got the sound-guy to turn off the between-bands music, launched straight into the first track.

And right from the off, the pre-gig announcements from the band were proven correct. There were new songs, current songs, and very little else. But more than anything, the way that songs were twisted into new forms, in the main, meant it was kinda moot as to what was played. This was an astonishingly punishing gig to experience, continued blasts of heavy rhythms, coruscating guitar riffs attacking the senses, and the bass. Oh, the bass hit you in the gut for the whole show, as if the whole sound set-up had been arranged to make things as uncomfortable and as testing as possible.

But then added to that, there were just seven songs played. In well over two-hours and thirty minutes. This was a test of endurance and wills, no matter how enthralling the gig was at points. The title track from recent album The Seer was somehow stretched out to nearly an hour(!) in length, a triumph of motorik repetition and pummeling rhythms. The following Nathalie, another new song, felt gentler, more melodic, after that.

Swans setlist:
To Be Kind
She Loves Us
The Seer
The Apostate

It wasn’t quite all new. One peek into the past was allowed, and it was an ugly one – the brutal drumming attack of Coward, as Gira spits out accusatory lyrics into the crowd. You know that phrase “heavy metal in slow motion” that used to be bandied around when it came to Swans? Ten glorious and painful minutes (those two drummers hit the skins hard. Really hard) of this proved that it was all absolutely true.

I’d like to say I made it through the whole thing, but I’ll confess. I couldn’t quite do it. A draining week in the office had left me about to fall over with exhaustion by the time The Apostate finally began to roar into life, so reluctantly I chose to leave it at that: Gira claims another victim from his relentless assault.

The thing is, I’ll be back again in April to do it all again. This is confrontational, ugly music, but once you get drawn in, it is impossible to give it up. You can’t look away, or stop listening. That Gira manages to make his music so fascinating and multi-faceted, despite the brutality, is the most amazing thing of all.

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