As old fashioned as the idea might seem, the ‘rock star as messiah’ thing still stands up. While it obviously depends on who’s in the frame, there are plenty around that are patently other — Springsteen, Bowie, Wayne Coyne, maybe Thom Yorke.
Given his band’s recent profile, I think it might be time to add Michael Gira’s name to the list. After all, Swans’ music at least as singular as any produced by the acts mentioned above. As a cult of personality meanwhile, Gira is so Old Testament prophet he makes Nick Cave look like Deepak Chopra. (Not to mention that his band was dead and alive again by the time it was 33).
From their unexpected resurrection in 2010 to curating their own mini-festival in London earlier this month, Swans recent career has been quietly phenomenal. In that period, they’ve gone from being the dictionary definition of niche (file under Alternative Unlistenable), to releasing the most celebrated rock record of last 12 months in the shape of The Seer. At the same time, they’ve also toured incessantly, bringing their fearsome live show to the bigger audiences they missed out on back in the day.
Another way you can tell if a rock star qualifies for messiah status is if they have a ‘project’. Springsteen has been busy becoming the voice of lower-middle class America; The Flaming Lips want to establish a liberal humanist spacetopia; Bowie is, well, Bowie. Swans have a weighty — if rather more primal — big idea too.
The first incarnation of the band built their rep on alienation. Their early music was slow, heavy and angry almost to point of abstraction; their live shows, festivals of barely controlled disgust, pitched at a volume level so extreme audience members sometimes got hurt. Gira still has more than a passing interest in ecstatic self-loss — the object now though is not confrontation but catharsis.
The Brighton gig opened with “To Be Kind”, a lengthy guitar and treated-pedal steel drone, over which Gira croons the lyrics like a kind of blessing. The show concluded meanwhile with “The Seer/Toussaint Louverture Song”, 30-plus minutes of hypnotic brutalism, the crux of which is an endlessly re-visited, monstrous, discordant vamp. This kind of thing is core to Swans’ creation of what might be best referred to as a rock ‘n’ roll vision quest. It’s also central, to invoke another hoary old rock cliche, to Gira’s role as “shaman”. He doesn’t call the audience “girls and boys” this evening as he has a habit of doing — but, arms and fingers flailing, eyes rolled up into his head, he was certainly leading his children somewhere.
The musicians carrying out this task have developed huge chemistry over the course of their three years together. The Can-inflected rhythm section, working alongside percussionist Thor Harris, are a veritable machine. Kristof Hahn’s peculiar pedal steel provides an otherworldly counterpoint, whether via washes of ambient sound or attempts to out-squeal the frontman.
The centrality of the rhythm section might explain the — groove probably isn’t quite the right word — now creeping in around the edges. One unrecognised (at least by me) number introduces jazz dynamics, which is kind-of appropriate, given the audience-excluding way they relate to each other on stage. There are also moments that are this far from being Funkadelic-does-doom; Phil Puleo (drums) and Chris Pravdica (bass) building a murderous syncopated grind for the others to inhabit.
The only other original member left is Norman Westberg, who uses his guitar to throw great slabs of glistening noise into the mix. Maybe it’s because he appeared on the original, but I notice him most tonight on “Coward”, “Holy Money’s” tribal-percussion and feedback-driven pean to emotional self-harm. It’s the closest they get nowadays to the pure abjection of the early band, and is another number built around repetition — this time, of the words ‘I love you’, ‘Put your knife in me’ and ‘I’m worthless’. It’s terrifying under any circumstances, but at this volume it’s like being bullied. It also serves as a reminder that mantra and madness are only ever touching-distance away from one another.
Since the band reformed in 2010, Michael Gira has said that he has no interest in simply repeating past glories. The Seer proved this, being not only the best rock record of last year but also the most modern. The shows they’ve been playing since its release likewise speak of a need to drive forward, with songs undergoing nightly revision. Perhaps this is what ultimately transforms a mere rock star into something a bit special — a refusal to stay the same. It was certainly one of the reasons Gira split the band in 1997, and will probably be why their new fans keep coming back.
Gig over, we emerge disoriented and half-deaf, having been shown the meaning of what Iggy and the Stooges called raw power. We’ve also seen the next stage in the slow, unlikely transformation of a strange, gnarly old man into a rock icon. Catch them before it all changes again.