I wanted to see Swans live. I passed by them several times and, although I was unfamiliar with their studio work to any relevant extent, I kept hearing this usual feedback: “Their live shows don’t have much to do with their albums. But prepare to have a ringing in your ears for the next three days”. They seem like the kind of band around which myths still get woven, and I find this fascinating; a few decades ago it happened to everybody, of course, those were the times, but nowadays, when information is everywhere and we’re all little oversharing narcissists, Swans are among the very few artists who still maintain some of that shroud of mystery around them, which encourages all sorts of rumors and urban legends. And this is a greater accomplishment than we might give them credit for.
Before Swans, in Control Club, Bucharest, on March 23rd, there was Little Annie. A strange mix, musically speaking, but somewhat complementary at a conceptual level. Similar to Swans’ Michael Gira, Annie Bandez aka. Little Annie is a character in her own right. Accompanied by Paul Wallfisch on keyboards, who would later join the main act on stage again, Annie almost felt like she was hiding the whole wisdom of the world underneath her apparent frailness – the sort of cynical wisdom born from pain, resignation and abandonment – but also a significant amount of worldly warmth. Annie has countless stories about herself and about others; you’re unsure sometimes of the boundary separating her from the rest of the world, as if she internalizes everything that’s happening outside of her to feed an internal flame, to always have more and more stories to tell you.
Her music gracefully whirls somewhere in between jazz, dark cabaret and freak folk, always gravitating around her weary but melodic, sultry voice, with the surprising depths that it reaches and a particular way of closing the vowels in the words that she speaks. I was touched by some songs I haven’t identified after the show (possibly new ones?), talking about “if onlies” and what would we become if we were someone else. At the end of it all, when everyone left after the Swans gig and the venue was all but deserted, Annie was standing in the middle, hugging and taking pictures with her fans.
Little Annie was eccentric, magnetic and charming.
And then there were SWANS.
Swans played for two and a half hours and it was one of the most visceral shows I ever attended. The first song started at 22:02 and ended roughly around 22:37. Of all the show’s duration, about 60% consisted of build-ups; a good thing, since they were the only moments when I could listen to the raw sound, without the added filter of the earplugs I had with me just in case. I hoped I wouldn’t use them, but I did – when all the instruments were unleashed I couldn’t stay without them for more than a minute or two without starting to feel intense pain. It was amazing.
It might sound like a childish rebellious thing (let’s kick it up to 11 and be loud as fuck, yeah!) but Swans‘ intention is naturally more intelligent than that. I can’t claim I totally grasped it, but I think it has to do with a sort of ritualization of the artistic act. Gravitating around the imposing personality of Michael Gira, who was non-discreetly coordinating the whole ensemble, the sextet looked less like a rock band and more like the shamans of a bizarre cult performing some sort of modern ritual. The patterns that kept repeating for minutes at a time with increasing intensity were encouraging a form of meditation, luring you in a trance-like state; I took a look around me one time and there were tens of people with their eyes closed letting the music just flow through them, allowing it to unleash who knows what contorted visions underneath their eyelids. I always believed that a work of art is never complete without the audience, without someone’s consciousness reconstructing its symbolic meaning and turning it into something which carries weight at a personal level. And when that particular work of art happens in real time in front of you, screaming in your face, the whole experience of receiving it is that much personal and cathartic – maybe even for the people performing it.
You can’t put a label on what Swans do in their live shows. It’s a journey. At times it sounded like jazz, other times it was pure doom, the sounds harmonizing themselves in certain passages and amplifying in dissonance in others. Michael’s vocals, like an otherworldly chant, sometimes clung to the instrumental skeleton, enveloping it in an almost esoteric aura. It seemed to be a ritual for him, as well, and he acknowledged that – particularly through the iconic gesture he did at times, turning his trembling palms towards the audience and his bandmates, as if channeling some sort of energy or forbidden knowledge. From the supernatural worlds of Lovecraft’s fiction we have the concept of an “Eldritch Abomination”, “a type of creature defined by its disregard for the natural laws of the universe as we understand them”. If I had to describe Swans’ sonic identity in just one concept, this would be it.
After the show, many people asked me if I liked it and I didn’t know what to say. I left the venue tired and shaken but I don’t know if I “liked” it in the traditional sense of the word. It’s hard to say you “liked” something so extensive and intense. It almost seems like a toy word, naive and childish compared to the vastness of what you just went through. Did it broaden your horizons? Yes, absolutely. Did it make you feel things? Yes, psychologically as well as physically: awe, shock, peace, unrest, repulsion, pain. Would you want to experience it again? Probably.
As a funny aside, I posted on Instagram a photo from the show, as people do. Minutes later I got this like: