Swans

I turned 250 posts on this blog and my OCD disorder made me keep it consistent for about 8 years: Single monography of bands, all photographed by me live on stage (apart 1 post, RATM) and very rarely duplicated.

By heart I can remember only The National (1 2), Smoke Fairies (1 – 2) and The Horrors  (1 – 2) had the privilege of a double post even if the record is for Mark Lanegan appearing solo, with his band, Isobel CampbellSoulsavers, Gutter Twins (kind of). Thom Yorke is solo and there’s Atom For Peace too. While PJ Harvey has the film/digital combo thanks to a John Parish tour.

Now Swans join the group.
I wrote about them few years ago, after a set at ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror in London. I am duplicating it with this show at the Electric Brixton.

Before the comeback, I hadn’t seen Swans live, Gira was a sort of legendary musician doing anything from Swans darkest projects to songs sang on solo acoustic tours.

When Swans played their first comeback gig in London, at Koko in October 2010 I had sorted a photopass well in advance. Sadly I haven’t managed to sort out my flu before the gig. Stuck in a bed with high temperature for the first time in years and the last ever since (fingers crossed) I spent that night listening to Swans new album and reading my friends’ SMS telling how amazing it was. A very painful experience.

Since then, and before last week, I saw Swans live few more times. Shortly at Primavera in Barcelona, at the ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror in 2011, where I took the photos on the other blog post, then in London and at Koko about a year and half ago.

So why to talk about Swans again?

Of the several useless comebacks happened in this reunion century, the only I still found meaningful are Dinosaur Jr (oh they’ve got a double bill here too 12) and Swans.

As any work of art I believe that to make a point you have to shape it out of a good idea. If there is a good idea, there is creativity, there will be a nice piece. If there are no ideas, there will be a piece recalling nostalgia or emptiness.

Swans came back with Gira, better put, Gira resurrected Swans after than 10 years hiatus.
It was a surprise, a nice surprise. As Gira said in many interviews it was also a new phase and the absence of Jarboe is the most tangible evidence of this.
He’s not into the band’s past. Swans are doing new things, as if they were a new band. That’s what “idea” means, this is why nostalgia isn’t in the equation here.

Three albums later, they’re biggest than ever.

My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, 2010 marked the return. It is a single album, sort of what the Bad Seeds would have been if, instead of Warren Ellis, they recruited Michael Gira to replace Blixa Bargeld.

The Seer, a double CD. After months of touring the bands rolled much “smoother” and the record is recognised with a 9.0 even by Pitchfork.
Crowdfunded selling live recording taken during the tour of the previous album it saw the light in 2012.

Tonight Swans came to London to present the third album since reformation. To Be Kind. Two more hours of Swans mayhem, from post-rock to post-experimentalism through obsessive repetition.

I embark in my journey towards the Electric Brixton on a miserable, rainy end of May evening of a post bank holiday Tuesday. On the train I think I’d rather be at home even in bed.

Instead I arrive early, wet, I enter the venue and discover that health and safety won’t leave me inside the too-narrow photopit. I’m safer with cameras and stuff in the middle of the crowd. God damn H&S silly rules in UK!
This means at 7.00PM I am at the fence and will stand there till 11pm. Better you get me rocking, Michael.

Thankfully Swans audience is intimidated enough by the band sound to be surprisingly calm and well behaved.

He will do.
Gira is on fire. He released many “kind” interview to promote To Be Kind (sorry :-) including a mammoth mother of all interviews here at The Quietus  where he clearly states what it is clear tonight from the moment, well before the gig, he enters the stage to check if everything is right.

The four years since Swans return, have seen Gira more and more at the centre of the stage. He has always been Swans but now Swans are Gira.
Compared to the early gigs I attended, Gira is now in total control.

His stage presence is more theatrical than ever, emphasize the music has he always had, highlighting all the song passages and changes, kicks the air and remarkably jumps the stage, there is more performance into it.
He has always spitted on stage. But he has never left the guitar to dance as a shaman for a whole song. That was a premiere.

Gira always interacts with the musicians, but he now pretend they must look at him all the time. He engages with all of them in turn. As Miles Davis used to do, he plays most of the set backward to the audience, to direct “his” orchestra.

There are wonderful moments with Christoph Hahn which, towards the end of the show end abruptly. I probably was the only to witness (and photograph) this scene. Gira lifted his right arms to communicate to Hahn something, but he wasn’t watching at him, he did it again, nothing. Gira walked to him and pointed his eye. Body language was precise: “you must look at me, pay attention”.

Hahn face was like the pupil who forgot to do the homeworks and from that minute on, Gira stopped that nice theatre which was giving me cool shots.

There is time for everyone, except Thor. Maybe he’s too big to have an argument with or too intimidating with those oversized mallets mistreating huge gongs. Perhaps he is simply too perfect and essential to Swans music.

The concert is fantastic. The band has almost 4 years of touring and you can perceive every minute of it. They are an incredible ensemble that decides eithr to punish or delight the audience at their will.

Compared to my other Swans performances, the new songs live sound more structured. They still morph in a sonic magma erupting at ears-bleeding volume (even if Swans volume isn’t as disturbing as other loud bands) but in a less, radical, less controversial way.

Hardcore fans could read this as Gira compromise to a much more “mainstream” success. Recent 9.2 Best New Music on Pitchfork and praises from everywhere including NME (yes the same magazine looking forward to the Libertines reunion) isn’t so predictable.
It must be my ageing but I find myself less open to radicalism everywhere, even in music, and the fact that a Swans composition can plea me from start to end, without going through a layer of pain isn’t something I tend to ditch nowadays.

Gira is less angry and maybe pleased by the recognition his music deserved since the 80s. He’s a happier man and sublimates his positive mood in a sound that remains Swans’ sound with the intimidation moved away.

Swans still are one of the best live bands out there, maybe they are the best of all. It is not to me to say.
Swans are here [website][facebook][Swans are not on Twitter][Spotify]

Photo tip

I have been a few times to the Electric Brixton. It’s “the other” Brixton place, considering the temple of Rock music in London, the Brixton Academy is just down the road.

Electric Brixton is up the road, towards Brixton Hill. Getting out of the Tube, because the Victoria line is The way to get to Brixton, turn left and walk about 5 minutes. On the right, where the small queue is forming, there is the venue. That is the Electric Brixton.

You may remember it as the Fridge, a place famous to have launched the New Romantic movement. The Fridge closed in 2010. Electric Brixton opened in 2011. Same place different everything else.
Recently Electric Brixton is gaining its momentum as a concert venue for cool event.

I shot here Franz Ferdinand comeback last year , with also gave me a couple of pics sold to the Telegraph and already faced a too narrow pit with not enough space to move, if someone else is in it with you.

I am prepared for Swans to do the same, until the security girl tells me it’s not going to happen. The tiny pit is there not for us to access. Damn!
It 7pm and can’t do nothing else than reach the front barrier, slightly stand on the side and stay there all night.

I have shot Swans few times so I know the best place to be, central slightly on the left looking at the stage. It is were Michael Gira spend most of his stage slot.
No pit means no chance to move around. All the images will be from the same perspective and sometime (as this time) even with the same lens. Impossible to switch.
No pit, on te positive side, also means we could shoot the whole set, which I probably prefer over shooting three songs with freedom of movement.

The stage is average in height and size. Swans use white lights with backlight which I love so I can’t complain on this for once.

If you are less stuck than me and have freedom to roam around, there is a nice room on the right of the venue, with a bar and some sofas. It is detached from the gig area so is the perfect place to have a chat before the show and especially during if you belong to the people going to concerts to chat all the time and ignoring who’s next to you. There’s a window in the wall to look at the stage if your friend love drama gets more boring than the live set.

The Merchandise desk usually is on the other side, next. There is a circle upstair, look small and interesting, but I have to admit I haven’t had the occasion to go up there yet.

~ by Valerio on June 6, 2014.

2 Responses to “Swans”

  1. I am still getting to know Swans, amazed by their discography. Gira is f*cking legendary. Now I understand where some of my favourite bands, like Neurosis and Godflesh, come from. At the moment I am hooked on The Great Annihilator and The Burning World. Although I enjoy moments like Filth, I find that my favourite stuff is the more acoustic oriented.

    Also, great pics!

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