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An Endless Kiss Of Uninhibited Love: Swans Live At KOKO
Maya Kalev , April 11th, 2013 07:05

Swans return to KOKO with some friends in tow for the Michael Gira-curated Mouth To Mouth Festival. Under the joyous onslaught, Maya Kalev forgets to inhale. Photos thanks to Katja Ogrin

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When Swans released The Seer last year, Michael Gira described it as "the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I've ever made, been involved in or imagined." Even to the most ardent Swans fan – and if Swans fans are one thing, it's usually ardent – it seemed a bit of an overblown statement. That was until you actually heard the fucker. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, the apotheosis of extreme music. The Seer had loftier goals than simple catharsis, instead going right for the jugular of unbridled, transcendental ecstasy. Over twelve tracks that clocked in at over two hours, Swans used every weapon in their instrumental arsenal to stimulate divine madness: guitar and drums and bass, sure, but also dulcimer, clarinet, steel 'cello, mandolin and – brilliantly – "fire sounds, acoustic and synthetic" on 'A Piece Of The Sky'. That latter credit goes to Ben Frost, who also performs in support of Swans at the festival Mouth to Mouth, which Michael Gira curated "based on [artists'] ability to resuscitate, set fire to the air, or to mesmerise".

Mouth to Mouth takes place in KOKO, the Camden venue. I know the area well as I've lived in and near it before, and work pretty close by. Even so, walking through Camden Town, I'm surprised at how groups of people continue to proliferate like foul mushrooms around misguided concepts of subversion. Kids and, worse, adults in inadvisable synthetic clothes , lolling outside souvenir shops, identikit craft emporia and chain restaurants as if they're CBGBs have all the trappings of 1970s punk style but none of its substance. In the 1970s and 80s, McLaren-esque punk style was new and radical; now it's simply retro, even a bit risible. All these superficial facsimiles of what made Camden a great subcultural centre are still there, but they're a bloodless version of the real thing thirty or so years down the line, an exercise in nostalgia rather than truth. It's a bit depressing. But away from the streetlights and the alien glow of chicken shops and bad goth makeup, punk's not dead. Musically, of course, punk proper was creatively exhausted some time ago, but its raw power, transgression and anti-sentimentality live. And just because something is decades old, it's not retrograde by default. Swans have been in the game thirty years, and are more uncompromising than ever.

Thanks to the festival's bizarre start time of 5pm on a weekday (my only gripe, truth be told), I miss out on Grouper, whom I'm a rabid fan of, and Xiu Xiu, whom I don't particularly mind missing; if I'm honest, I'm still scarred from the last time and that was only a couple of months ago. Mercifully, I make it to KOKO in time for Ben Frost. Throughout his set, which runs the gamut of both older material and a slew of new tracks from an as-yet unannounced album, the audience is rooted to the ground, transfixed and electrified. Heads jerk and bodies vibrate, these inadvertent micro-movements a product of the sound's sheer, all-consuming physicality. There are few pauses between tracks; instead, Frost emanates wave after wave of deliciously punishing noise. The noise unfurls from whisper-soft puffs that tickle my ears like small hot breaths to harrowingly loud drones that all but consume my every fibre. Two drummers flank Frost, smashing the fuck out of their kits with the kind of mindless abandon that speaks of a pure Zen state of submission and complete focus without thinking or feeling. It's a sensation I'm to feel myself later that evening, but for now, I'm entranced by the beautiful unholy racket,

If the gig's anything to go by, time has not mellowed Frost. The bass thickens the air and turns my internal organs into a hot soup. Eye-wateringly bright white strobes radiate from the stage, each carving a wonderful little fissure in my cranium. The combination of the lights, the smoke and Frost's bleeding, spectacular cacophony comes pretty close to Gira's intention to set the air on fire. Certainly, a strange energy crackles among the crowd: not the flaky cod-spiritual incense-scented crap peddled by Camden's hippy contingent (fake retro punks and fake retro hippies – this borough has a lot to answer for), but a real sense of the latent electricity between us all sparking and fizzing away. The last huge, menacing, shrieking drone passes over us and into us and through us, and after the roaring cheers, the collective intake of breath reveals I'm not the only one who after a while just forgot to inhale.

When Swans begin their elephantine set, the crowd, which numbers upwards of a thousand, is utterly, delightedly dwarfed by the Brobdingnagian towers of sound. Swans are a revelation. Their power of resuscitation is such that parts of me I never even knew existed, let alone those that I knew lay dead or dormant, spring into life. Swans' great and subtle achievement is to stimulate intrinsic, primal, pre-conscious and overwhelmingly pure affect from music that's wrought to the finest degree. I say music, but it's closer to architecture. And it's crushingly, skull-warpingly, terrifyingly, and obscenely LOUD. VERY FUCKING LOUD. So loud, in fact, that I cannot hear my own thoughts; and why would I want to when instead of thinking, I could just be? This volume, far from being upsetting, or making me think that perhaps my incipient tinnitus would be better off with some earplugs, is a wonderful, redemptive, cleansing thing. Its effect is, roughly speaking, the goal of almost all non-deistic religion: consciousness without thought, and perception without judgment – in other words, pure presence. Thor's unimaginable percussive onslaught, as he hits his drums with preternatural strength, alongside guitars that sound like screams and basslines I have no doubt could reanimate the dead cause a serious loss of all bodily control as I submit entirely to the tectonic throbs and screeches and crunches.

And clawing through the epic chambers of sound is the voice of Michael Gira. It's has all the high drama of Scott Walker, the sneer of Lou Reed, and the spitting attitude born from thirty years of being one of the heaviest motherfuckers in rock music. He roars and shrieks; holds his arms out like a drunk scarecrow and topples under the awesomeness of his own band's volume; dives and rises like a grizzled Lazarus; leaps and crumples only to rise again. On stage, he's a conductor and commander, the guiding hand but also the swirling, raging epicentre of the band. Or, to put it less politely, the flaming eyes on the front cover of The Seer, and the arsehole on its back. Gira's famed for being a hard taskmaster who sets a no doubt grueling rehearsal schedule for the band that lasts up to eight hours a day. Swans' appalling heaviness isn't the result of spontaneity or jamming or just hanging out together, and in no sense are Gira, Thor, Westberg and the rest just losing themselves to the vibes, man. The slabs of music may be colossal, but they teem with an infinitude of laboured detail, each fifteen-minute drone and guitar crunch fearsome as a natural disaster and beautifully intricate as gold filigree.

The tracks from The Seer as performed tonight reinforce that album's undermining of the convention of 'songs' as easily digestible musical packages. Of course, though this is hardly a promo tour, Swans play a number of tracks from it, as well as – thrillingly – more unreleased works-in-progress. It would be crass to speak of highlights when the whole performance (I think it's about two hours, though all sense of time is, obviously, redundant here) is sheer bodily ecstasy, but 'The Seer', which seems to extend not to thirty minutes but to either side of next week, is particularly brutal. Inching towards a series of climaxes, Swans wring every last drop of sound from their instruments, each chord and thump harder, heavier and more unremitting than the last.

Eventually, the members force a final howl from their instruments and a heavy, aftershocked quiet descends upon us. My spinal cord rendered all but useless, and breathless and ecstatic and not a little high off the sheer physical ordeal, I look around at the crowd. Couples are cuddling; friends are hugging. Torsos share sweat like it's a gift. I smile beatifically at everybody and nobody. On the way home, warm in spite of the unseasonably freezing weather, I reflect on the massiveness of the evening, and realise that this phenomenally potent, physical music isn't the sound of hate or rage or death, even if it concerns itself with all those things; it's the sound of uninhibited love. Of course, mouth to mouth isn't just resuscitation. It's also a kiss.

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Apr 11, 2013 11:28am

I prefer Minutemen.

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Adam Jones
Apr 11, 2013 11:34am


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Nelson Nielson Nielsen
Apr 11, 2013 11:45am

yeah, what's your favorite Grouper song? oh you can't tell me, because there are only two Grouper songs? the 'cloudy' one and the weedy one with three words? Grouper are utter pish, a farce on all levels 'redeemed' (if that's the word) by the fact she didn't solicit her inane cult. If that's what you find 'interesting' about music, why not just sigh your own or stand on the docks and absorb THAT ambience? it's surely more diverse and surprising than anything Liz Harris can imagine.

As for the Swans, I pray you never actually hear Mahler, or a proper rendering of Elgar "Dream of Gerontius," your punk is ________ head will explode like a leaky curry takeaway.

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Apr 11, 2013 11:46am

Great review - perfectly capturing the unique experience that is watching Swans live. I am truly in love with this band.

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Apr 11, 2013 12:09pm

In reply to Nelson Nielson Nielsen :

Wow, what an agressive comment stemming from a fleeting head-nod to Grouper (who the reviewer didn't even catch).

Makes me tired.

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Brahms' Stoker
Apr 11, 2013 12:25pm

In reply to Nelson Nielson Nielsen :

Just curious, but what's your favourite Mahler? Everyone goes on about the 8th but I don't get it. I love the 9th and 5th though. Anyway, on to the point of this post: It's a bit fucking stupid for you to vilify the author for her(or him or I dunno) taste and just because she actually had a great time at the gig. And to assume that anyone that likes this sort of music won't 'get' Mahler? LOL, I don't even want to get into that.

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Rory Gibb
Apr 11, 2013 12:40pm

In reply to Nelson Nielson Nielsen :

What an unpleasant comment, and one more example of 'read the article properly before you rant' idiocy.

This is a marvelous and spot-on review Maya, think you've done a bloody good job of capturing the immenseness of seeing Swans, especially given that it's the sort of thing that's very difficult to put into words. Still got whiplash from last week's gig.

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Apr 11, 2013 12:46pm

In reply to Nelson Nielson Nielsen :

I concur on Grouper.

I liked Swans in the 80s, but they don't sound like much fun now.

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Andrew Parsons
Apr 11, 2013 2:18pm

I went to the Birmingham show which was 2 hours of blissful noise. Whilst there was nothing as terrifying as the version of "sex god sex" from their set at Koko 2 years ago, the 3rd or 4th track was one of the heaviest things I've ever heard. At the end of it, I was concerned the girders holding the roof up were going to shear. Good stuff - will be fascinating to see what the good people of Green Man make of them.

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Dan John
Apr 11, 2013 2:23pm

Great review.

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Bogie 55
Apr 11, 2013 3:14pm

In reply to Nelson Nielson Nielsen :

Do you think that there is nothing pleasurable about ambient noise from places like the docks then? And if someone should attempt to recreate these sorts of atmospheric noises, well that would be "arranged sound" like any other music, right? Not that I'm saying that's what Grouper is about, but her aesthetic really isn't any inherently less valid than your Late Romantic faves.

The tone of your comments mark you out as an ignorant boob regardless, and bringing in Mahler and Elgar (why these two on a Swans review?) does nothing to legitimise your point of view. Perhaps you might want to rethink some of your assumptions before you next look up some GR8 Cumposeur Musicks on YouTube and make yourself the new Alex Ross.

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Apr 11, 2013 5:34pm

In reply to Nelson Nielson Nielsen :

Are you the same guy that came into the Scott Walker discussion a few months back essentially saying, "I pray you [Scott fans] never hear Hugo Wolf or your head might explode?"

I think that I'm pretentious, and then I see people like you.

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Apr 11, 2013 11:32pm

I had the misfortune of catching Xiu Xiu. If you enjoy emo renderings of Appalachian folk songs with bird noises playing in the background then you missed out. For me, though, witnessing Jamie Stewart's pretentious grimace of ecstasy as he sang "When I die, hallelujah by and by" was simply an affectation too far, so I hid at the back of the venue until he slithered offstage.

Amazing gig otherwise, though. Mercury Rev's live soundtrack to The Red Balloon was gorgeous.

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Apr 13, 2013 1:02am

In reply to Nelson Nielson Nielsen :

Ooh he said Mahler and Elgar.
Did you read that before posting it? Were you drunk?
Swans are great and so is Grouper. Mahler and Elgar are ok too - but a bit too mainstream for me.

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Ewan McPherson
Apr 13, 2013 8:23am

the Birmingham gig was utterly fantastic. As I am a latecomer to Swans, does anyone have the set list to this?

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Daveid Phillips
Apr 14, 2013 10:39am

really great review, beautifully written,
I agree with Mt Gibb it's not easy summing up the experience of seeing this
most incredible of bands again at another peak of their career.
as for the ill informed childish pish comment from the person hiding behind the name Neilson what ever, use a real a name if you have serious point to make, because you just come across like some patrick bateman wannabe, friendless little fuck tard, and I'm sure not, or are you?

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Daveid Phillips
Apr 14, 2013 10:40am

In reply to Daveid Phillips :

sorry I meant Mr not Mt!

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