Photos by Morten Aagaard Krogh (mortenkrogh.com)
As if to reiterate the fact that concert-goers can be a foolish lot, ear-plugs are being handed out on the stairs into Store Vega, perhaps to those whose only other encounter with Swans was their often-regretted cover “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. The ear-plugs are a small concession relative to the brutal onslaught which is to come: eight songs (give or take) spread over two and a half hours, beginning with a fifteen minute gong solo.
Said gong solo marks the opening of “Frankie M”, a staple of recent Swans shows, though as yet unreleased. Live shows are something of a breeding ground for Swans songs (lets get over that pun right now, before I am tempted to repeat it), with several of the tracks off To Be Kind constituting part of their live repertoire long before the album’s release. Gigs are, for frontman Michael Gira, a way to directly experience the odd mix of love and confrontation between band and fans.
If Swans have become slightly less physically violent than they used to be, and Micheal Gira less prone to unleashing his genitals on stage, they have only turned more visually terrifying: a skeletal Norman Westberg hovers precariously to the right of the stage, while an ominous Christoph Hahn broods over his lapsteel on the left. Gira directs with wild hand gestures and looming over his band-mates, building up tension by ever more unbearable degrees. Though much of the set is based on drone noise-scapes, songs like “A Little God in My Hands” allow for a different, markedly more bizarre atmosphere. With its off-kilter bassline and rhythm, the song inhabits a Twin Peaks-inspired psychosphere, amplified by Gira’s tendency to garble the lyrics into a twisted baby-speak.
Though Swans are certainly uncompromising, they have a perversely playful side. Percussionist Thor Harris’s appearance is a Spinal-Tap-esque imitation of a caveman, bearded and bare-chested. The mercurial Michael Gira appears to be in a good mood, referring to the audience as “beautiful children” and making fun of the “language of dark sorrow” in a generic Scandinavian accent. One brief scuffle with someone in the front row amounts to nothing more than a stern reprimand, and our photographer remains unmolested.
There is no doubting that this is a test of endurance. The weaker elements of the audience (or those who have work in the morning) start leaving after an hour and a half, and so Gira’s request that the house lights be raised in order to see the audience has the appearance of an appraisal of our strength. The final bows and the promise of kisses at the merch booth are like being offered tea after being punched in the face, and masochists that we are, we lap it up.