Michael Gira finishes another song. (Pic Ben Stas)
The rain beats down and rivers of water wash through Brixton. The slate grey sky shows no sign of a break in the weather anytime soon. I have two options. Go and see Swans or build an ark.
When I enter and shake the moisture from my clothing, the venue is already pretty full. The crowd are steaming gently and listening to the abrasive sounds of Jenny Hval and her two companions.
Hval half declaims, half barks. Her songs are seemingly random snatches of percussion and noise. The result is somewhere between Brecht and the dance floor. She also reminds me of the artier excesses of Mark Perryand Alternative TV circa 'Vibing Up the Senile Man'. Interesting and challenging stuff then.
There are many myths surrounding headliners Swans. Tales of punishing rehearsals, deafening volumes and sets of epic length.
My own fondest memory of the band was from a gig at ULU in the Eighties on a bill that they shared with Mark Stewart & The Maffia. Swans were so loud on that occasion that you couldn't actually hear them, just feel the air moving against your chest and a terrible discomfort. It was like being underwater.
Tonight I'm packing ear plugs.
The band wander onto a stage cluttered with amps and an array of percussion instruments. They look grizzled and worn. These are guys who are used to hard work.
Everyone, on stage and off, takes instruction from the long haired and rather unnerving Michael Gira. As the band builds to a lengthy climax that had apparently started as a soundcheck, Gira walks round and round in tight circles, psyching himself up while mumbling and flailing a flabby arm above his head.
The band go into a loud and sonorous riff that is identifiable as part of 'Frankie M'. Gira sings, sometimes gibbers, all the while keeping a tight rein on the other band members. He points, urges them to focus or conducts them like an orchestra.
Such are the length of some of these songs that we only get half a dozen or so over the span of the evening.
'A Little God in My Hands' develops organically, builds into something majestic and, like all the material tonight, pounds repetitively for a great amount of time before being suddenly and emphatically stopped by a single high-footed stomp from Gira.
It's loud tonight, but not excruciatingly so. There are even relatively quiet and tender passages during 'Just a Little Boy'.
The band play for well over two hours without a break. Although Gira will occasionally address the crowd, and pleasure can be derived from the aptly named Thor Harris, bare chested and apparently summoned from
Olympus to bang gongs and bells, Swans are primarily a
band that is turned in upon itself. The performers form a circle and are intent
upon the contribution that they make to the group as a whole.
That is perhaps my only criticism. Swans kind of do their thing and we are in the same room while they do it. You feel that nothing would change if there was no audience at all.
Only at the end does Gira relent. He assembles the band across the front of the stage for a well deserved curtain call, individually introducing the band members by nicknames that he is making up on the spur of the moment.
There has been something tumultuous and Old Testament about this evening, from the Biblical weather outside to the epic and unforgiving sounds inside the venue. I head out into the dark and look for a life raft.
Pic Ben Stas