SWANS – Bristol Trinity 28.05.2014

May 29, 2014

I started the day with an agonising dental appointment with my hygienist, the pain so unbearable it almost became enjoyable. I ended the evening watching Swans play in a tiny hall for two hours. Without wanting to labour the metaphor – the two experiences weren’t dissimilar.

Swans is a band I was convinced I was destined never to see. Last time they played Bristol I was heading the other way across the Atlantic. When they were scheduled to play Iceland Airwaves in 2012 they were stranded in New York (aptly) by a hurricane. I never saw them when they exploded into the UK in the late 80s – though a friend claimed he was literally felled by the sound-waves at one of their early gigs (although urban legends abounded at the time – my favourite being that EMP frequencies in their music induced mass bowel movements in the audience).

I thought I was prepared for the aural onslaught, but there is a difference being told someone is ‘the loudest band in the world’ and actually experiencing that barrage of sound. I’d heard stories of Boyd Rice’s NON making even Throbbing Gristle audiences leave in submission, but until you’ve actually experienced a band like Swans, you have no reference points – not even after a lifetime of gig-going.

The start is as low key as you’d expect from a band that is way above the usual crass theatrics of most concerts. They set up their own instruments then a few minutes later, after a building crescendo on a huge gong, they amble back on stage looking like the remnants of a ragged Confederate army who’ve wandered from some distant battle- field. The sound of gong and drum builds and builds but that still doesn’t do anything to prepare for the shock when the bass and guitars explode. It feels more like being hit by a wall of solid water than by sound – the brightly coloured foam earplugs sported by most of the audience as useful as a dingy in a Tsunami. The first track, Frankie M. is the closest we get to a tradition ‘song’ all evening. To describe the rest as just noise just doesn’t do it justice. The sound ebbs and flows, but is almost trance inducing with Gira as the hypnotic shaman, sometimes speaking in tongues (but with that tongue always firmly lodged in his cheek).

My thoughts drift – I have dark fantasies of seeing Swans on X-Factor; playing them full volume at a dinner party; watching them support Belle and Sebastian; taking a first date along to see them.

At one point Gira asks for the house lights to be turned on the audience – presumably to see our pain. He’d have looked onto a roomful of autistically nodding heads, with someone occasionally breaking out into a possessed, thrashing frenzied dance. He asks for his mike to be turned even higher, to tweak the pain.

The whole evening is closer to a dark evangelical gathering than a ‘rock’ gig. After two hours the set finishes to ecstatic cheering – a great release. The band smile and line up for a curtain call. Mutual respect between band and audience – we’ve been through something dark and special together, but we’ve come through it and survived – a catharsis for sure. My ears ring long into the night but the experience will live on long in the memory.

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