Swans // Belgrave Music Hall & Canteen

Swans are back on tour celebrating the release of their most cathartic and revealing album to date ‘The Beggar’, a two hour-long cinematic dreamland that encroaches entropy and the inevitability of death, a concept previously touched upon in their 2019 album ‘Leaving Meaning’.

Over 40 years since the first Swans gig and 16 albums deep, Swans return with a couple of new faces in the lineup and they continue to captivate audiences once again with their exertion of unsettling and purifying cacophonies. Although conceptually ‘The Beggar’ may delve into the subject of one’s demise, the band prove they are certainly far from it sonically. 

After seeing Swans at the historic methodist hall in Manchester, The Albert Hall, the previous Saturday, Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen seems to be an unusual venue to host the band, but the confirmed intimacy of the performance excites the audience nonetheless. I establish myself in a good spot on the right-hand side of the bar and toilet stream that occupies the left to maximise the immersion experience. 

Ex-Swans guitarist Norman Westburg is the support act for this evening. Westburg, who has been present throughout almost the entirety of Swans’ existence, from their 1983 debut album ‘Filth’ all the way up to their most recent reformation and is now back on the road with Swans showcasing his ethereal drone solo-project. Armed with a guitar and a table littered with pedals, Westburg commences the ritual by captivating a silent room with a crushingly dense dirge that rattles the speakers and the floorboards, setting a perfect contemplative tone for the evening. Themes of reoccurrence in melodies that dramatically peak at points and subtly metamorphise back into the meditative hum that engulfs the room, Westburg is a master in his left field craft and sincerely demonstrates this in his latest release ‘Aftermath’ with experimental outfit ‘Luna Honey’.

After a propelling thought-provocative incision from Norman Westburg, the audience seem lost in introspection and patiently linger while Swans set-up their equipment in preparation for the deep submissive escapade we are about to embark upon.

They walk onto the cramped stage and locate themselves in their sound stations while Michael Gira positions himself seated, front centre with his acoustic guitar. The set opens with Gira repetitively strumming an open chord on his acoustic guitar while simultaneously conducting the rest of the band with his other arm as they stare attentively at him waiting for their next queue. As his vacant left arm rises further, so does the mountains of sound that pulsate from the amplifiers for the opening track ‘The Beggar’. The ebb and flow of density that ceases to pummel through the Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen creates an aural suffocation restricting any form of conversation during the performance, leaving you isolated and left confined within your thoughts to endure the sonic onslaught in front of you. 

As I look around the room, the audience is fixated upon the hierogram, that is Michael Gira. His arm orchestrates the hypnosis of automated synchronised head nods that flow to the rhythms and quiver from the stage. The band builds and edges nearer to the seemingly eventual auditory detonation, that forever appears on the horizon and is consistently teased – a sound comparable to a raging bull tied to a ball & chain. The 40 years of Gira’s self-scrutiny and exploration into himself, searching for his meaning and the definitive sound of Swans is heard through the expressive, sinister folklore soundscapes in which Gira is fully immersed in to reveal his truest form.

You are not just listening to Swans, you are deep diving inside the mind and struggles of Michael Gira. Some of the audience are attentively studying the band, some are in mental transit using the experience to delve further into one’s being, while others are stood in utter awe and amazement to what is before their eyes. No band comes close to Swans, and they never will. 

Larry Mullins (keys/drummer/percussionist), Dana Schechter (keys/bass), Kristof Hahn (lap steel), Christopher Pravdica (bass), and Phil Puleo (drums) embrace the almost improvised freedom and follow the signals from their cult-leader Michael Gira, to demonstrate the uniqueness of each Swans’ performance.

Phil Puleo’s freeform imaginative approach to the drums combined with Dana Schechter and Christopher Pravdica’s dual bass amplifies the tumultuous wails of sound. 

Next up, is ‘The Hanging Man’, the 10 minute and 48 second masterpiece from their 2019 album ‘Leaving Meaning’. An addictive claustrophobic drum and bass kraut tangled repetition with oscillating synths and lap steel screeches that gradually evolves in intensity as Gira’s shamanic wails spill over the audible mammoth that trudges further and further into the unknown. 

The Eastern religious and philosophical influences to the approach of songwriting allows time to stand still and guides you away from reality. Removes your mind from your body. You enter a retrospective analysis of one’s self. The plethora of thoughts that haunt the mind daily have vanished, stripping you bare and leaving you entirely clear and in an innocent form. Unlocked memories long forgotten about flutter in your consciousness replayed out and vanish again without warning. One is alone with one’s self. We are dead souls, awakened only by introspection.

Clouds begin to pass and you appear to see yourself for who you truly are. Gira reaches out his hand to you and invites you to join him in the self-analysis and introspective discovery through your being. Only parallel to the self-expressive discovery Gira undertook to figure his true meaning and the formation of the pinnacle Swans sound as heard on the latest records.

Having spent much of his teenage life in prison for petty crimes and getting sent down into an adult prison in Jerusalem for selling bricks of hash, Michael Gira has spent many hours locked in solitude with his own mind which is reflected into the essence of the music. With the most recent reformation of Swans from 2010 onwards, it feels like Gira has finally reached the holy grail of what he has been searching for. His persistence for over 40 years and dedication to the band has finally made it all worthwhile. 

“Watching Swans live is like hearing the whole history of music being played out in front of you” a critic quotes from their recently released ‘Where Does The Body End’ documentary. Watch here 

‘The Memorious’ is played from their latest album ‘The Beggar’ featuring a demonic child’s laughter that possesses the track. The dark fluctuating undertones swallow the child’s laughter into the thunderous, repetitive darkness, growing more and more ominous while Gira stands above the sheer tribal power looking down upon the sea of mesmerised disciples that stand before him. 

After their 2019 album ‘Leaving Meaning’ that questions of what ultimately remains after we pass from this world, their latest album “The Beggar” seems to explore this further… The album is conceptually grounded in personal emotions and reflects a revulsion in one’s decay.

Sonically, the record retraces old territories like ‘White Light From The Mouth or Infinity’ and the left-field grooves cut from more recent releases like ‘To Be Kind’. A genuine cathartic rage and sadness pours from the 2 hours listen as a grim acceptance of the inevitable hangs above throughout. Gira has captured the crucial time and essence of clutching onto the scraps of life in the 43 minute track ‘The Beggar Lover (Three)’. The length of the track makes sense because when reaching the end of life, what would have most value but time itself…

In the three-song medley ‘Leaving Meaning’ / ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ / ‘Birthing’ finale, Gira stands locked within the torrential monsoon of obstreperous sound that has reached an eruption of hysteria from the two hours’ execution. Gira stands reaching into the air until the music fully submits him into an exorcism that breaks him uncontrollably into a full body spasm.

The conglomeration of the three tracks perfectly round off the performance, combining all the previous abrasive, tangled percussive rhythms with their signature colossal drones into one explosive climax that showcases the raw talent and authenticity of the band.

There truly is no other band that sounds like Swans. Michael Gira’s self-discovery into the realisation of sound that he has been looking for over the last 40 years has enabled him to reach his purest form of cathartic expression, channeling the anger, defiance and disgust of the journey that has taken him here to reach his zenith.   

The audience leaks back out into the Saturday night wilderness, wide-eyed and glowing from the spiritual reckoning as they attempt to re-join reality. 

Swans ‘The Beggar’ https://swans.bandcamp.com/album/the-beggar

Michael Gira ‘The Knot’ book https://younggodrecords.com/products/the-knot

Young God Records https://younggodrecords.com