Michael Gira

An awkward silence hung over the Birmingham audience as Swans took to the stage, either too polite, or too intimidated to applaud the arrival of Michael Gira and his legendary New York Experimental/Noise Rock band. It was the last moment of calm and silence that anyone in The Library would hear for over two hours. As Swans’ sucked the air from the room, any traditional concepts of melody or rhythm went with it, and the very idea of verse-chorus song structure probably would’ve been met with a sly smirk.

They opened with Gira shaking the room with his impossibly deep baritone, chanting “there are millions and millions of stars in your eyes” over a hauntingly shrill and sparse rhythm, sometimes singing it off-mic as he drifted around the stage with his own eyes closed. The rest of the band met his volume as they violently snapped through “Mother of the World”, a panting menace of a song from The Seer, Swans equally demented 2012 album. They ripped into it with such fervour that several earplugless individuals immediately fled the barrier.

Swans’ six man line-up ranges from your standard stern faced rhythm guitarist, bassist and drummer, to the more nebulous and hard to define multi-instrumentalist. Thor Harris, who lived up to his name by playing bare chested, literally provided Swans’ bells and whistles, along with brass and fierce percussion. Chris Pravdica provided the punishing bass catalyst of “Coward”, coercing the rest of the rhythm section into the songs intense severity. Gira sang and spat out the unnerving lyrics amongst the troubled rhythms, shouting: “I don’t know you / I can’t use you / Put your knife in me”. He seemed to be aware of every noise and note that each of his band members were making or playing; he would repeatedly beckon to them for more volume, or place his guitar down and conduct their corrosive cacophony with his convulsive dancing.

They played long and unhurried versions of their songs, indulging in long abstract noise rock sections that frequently pushed song lengths well past the 20 minute mark. They would play the same earth shattering mantric refrains until the sense altering volume finally began to white out. After 90 minutes Gira said that there set was only half over, it’s hard to imagine he was joking, and he only found time for one more song before the 11pm curfew.

Their dirge of anguished violent noise was enough to set your brain on fire, engulfing it as it found a form of ecstasy within Swans’ transcendent onslaught, becoming enamoured and alive with frisson as their volume shook your bones, and Gira spouted what must’ve been demonic tongues. The awkward silence had transformed to loud applause by their set’s end, and the band relieved the haunting tension by taking uncharacteristically playful bows.

It’s so easy to call the noise produced by some of music’s loudest bands a ‘wall of sound’. Any band who push their volume far into the red have probably had their live set described this way, but for Swans it just doesn’t feel like an apt description. The noise they created on The Library’s stage didn’t feel like an isolating wall, it didn’t block out audience, it enveloped them. It felt like you were within it, hurtling with it through dark and unsettling scenes, becoming ever more willing to hand yourself over to its all-consuming power, not even caring that it was turning anything caught in its wake to dust.

5/5

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