When you know what recent Swans gigs have consisted of, believing the 21:15 billing is a rookie mistake to make. Upon turning up to the venue thirty minutes before that, you already find both a large queue desperate to enter and Michael Gira and his flock raising hell. It’s a sight you’d imagine would make Gira smile. Wind the clock back 30-odd years and the crowds were fighting to get out. Now, they’re fighting to get in.
It is really busy in here. Although again, given the almost universal praise that they’ve garnered since Gira decided in 2010 it was time to give Swans flight once more, that shouldn’t be surprising. There is an impenetrable wall of people surrounding the stage at Electric Brixton. A wall which is matched by the noise emerging from the musicians on stage. One way or another, it’s impossible to push particularly far forward.
Not that you necessarily need to. You’re not going to struggle to hear them. Probably even more so than the last time round at KOKO, the point at the top of the peaks that those looping grooves end up, is just slightly uncomfortable. You generally adjust, but there is often a point where everyone is at maximum attack where the pressure builds and you start to feel it.
Even then though, with their foot on your throat, it is still majestic. It is extraordinary seeing Swans go for it. To aim at, and achieve, a thrillingly ecstatic freedom through noise and repetition. They do it early and they do it often. The opening Frankie M. is like an eviscerated Feel Good Hit Of The Summer. “Heroin. Opium. Frankie M.” Gira enchants in maudlin, deadpan style, as the rest of the band unleash righteous fury behind him.
A Little God In My Hands is all about Chris Pravdica’s looping, hypnotic bass groove. “Ba. Ba. Ba. Bowwww” it goes, on and on and on again, each time delivered with such precision and such visceral fury it’s as if someone has reanimated a zombie with the spirit of Bootsy Collins. Meanwhile Thor Harris is playing a trombone. To call Harris a multi-instrumentalist seems like you are selling him a little short. On top of the trombone he gets through cymbals, drums, vibraphones, some chimes and a violin which looks like something one of the Stradivari would have made had they been shipwrecked on an island and could only whittle driftwood with their teeth.
But all of the band are fantastic. Christoph Hahn and Norman Westburg torture their lap steel and guitar with gleeful malevolence and the way Phil Puleo mediates his drumming between violence and restraint is astonishing. While they all have their part to play in this catastrophic plan, every catastrophic plan needs a general and it’s always clear who that is.
It’s Gira in charge. Everyone else is locked on him, awaiting a hand gesture or the clomping down of that big boot that will either mark the end or the beginning of another passage. Before The Apostate, he puts down his his guitar and begins to dance like he’s being attacked by bees, before slowly the track builds into the something that sound like you’re below someone shifting some particularly heavy furniture.
It is brutal, unforgiving and fantastic. Swans are one of the greatest live bands on the planet. The chance to go and see them should be grasped with both hands. Just make sure you get there early.