For Swans, it begins the day before. An email giving stage times (usual) and one additional sentence (unusual): “Swans will play a two and a half hour set”. Not a boast. Not a threat. Just a statement.
It gives rise to some questions. Should you bring a stool? Does that include an encore? Given the length of certain tracks in Swans’ back catalogue, will the photographers get the normal three songs to shoot given that could end up being 90 odd minutes in the pit?
More importantly, it gives an indication that this will demand something of you as an audience member. You have to accept the discomfort of being stood upright for long enough to develop DVTs. You have to accept that afterwards there will be a buzzing in your ears that will take days to shift. But the fact you have to work at it makes it all the more rewarding. It’s the difference between cooking the meal and piercing the clear film with a fork. Harder, but it tastes better.
Cometh the hour (or a quarter past the hour) Michael Gira and his men strode on. They look serious. The kind of guys who if you see in a rough part of town, you know not to mess with. Because you don’t make it that long on the wrong side of the tracks without knowing a thing or two about winning arguments. However, all that apparent seriousness shouldn’t cloud your judgement. This is a joyous experience. Even the noise, while admittedly loud enough that you can sense your clothing flapping in its wake, isn’t oppressive. Like slipping into a hot bath – initially you can’t stand the heat, but give it a moment and you adjust. Then it becomes enveloping.
For some, it was too much. One pushes back from the front, pained expression on his face. Then one person literally collapses. Keels over. There’s a concerning moment as those surrounding wonder if he’s actually dead. But no, he stirs, dusts himself down, shakes his head and heads for the exit. Still, if you’ve got to go, this would be the soundtrack you’d want. From the opening To Be Kind, which begins with a sound like someone sharpening swords, it is an apocalyptic scene that is set.
Of course, Gira is the man in charge. The band watch him intently, waiting for his direction. Most obviously on The Seer, where he, with a nod, a wink, or a massive stomp of his boot rouses them into another crescendo. And that’s what that song is, moments of relative calm followed by crescendo after crescendo after crescendo after crescendo. After crescendo. One sounds like a pack of baby foxes fighting in a room made entirely of cymbals. One sounds like Ennio Morricone scoring the Salem witch trials. All are marvellous.
Whether it’s the lurching, industrial clank of Coward, the church bell and country tinged Avatar, or the set closing The Apostate, the care and finesse which goes into the waves of sound that crash down upon you leaves you feeling euphoric. Giddy. So yes, Swans will play for two and a half hours. What they don’t tell you is it will feel like 15 minutes.