An Endless Kiss Of Uninhibited Love: Swans Live At KOKO
, 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
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.