I knew from the start, that this gig would be a test of endurance, both in its length, and in its brutal and constant assault on the audience’s ear drums. And yet still, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into Rescue Rooms on Monday, on what must have been the coldest night of the year. Reading John Calvert’s exquisite review of Swans back in 2012, I looked forward to the show with a kind of nervous excitement, particularly when I saw that they were being supported by the excellent Jenny Hval. I wanted to be affected by what I saw, to experience that moment of the divine that Calvert refers to in his review. As it turned out, I’m not sure either Swans or Hval showed up on Monday night.
Maybe I was naïve or arrogant to expect so much from a band I hadn’t taken that much time to listen to (I certainly couldn’t consider myself a fan), but I feel confident saying Swans were not on their game when they came to Nottingham that Monday. Michael Gira has an aura and a mystique about him, and that was certainly evident in places, but with the possible exception of the bassist, it seemed almost as if the band couldn’t be bothered with the performance. If this seems harsh, consider that the guitarist, wearing a full length shirt and trousers, didn’t break a sweat or change facial expression for the entire gig, or that the synth player sat placidly in his seat for the duration, only stopping to get another bit of chewing gum from his pocket. The pictures of an engaged and committed band from their other gigs was scarcely in evidence.
Swans thrashed and droned through two hours of an incredibly loud and weighty set, but only one of the six or so songs they played had anything resembling a bass groove, guitar lick or a beat or a melody or that you might recognise from any given song, except a punishing wall of sound that only ceased as they paused for breath between songs. Sitting here now listening to Taylor Swift, I find myself trying to find something positive to take from that night, just as I spent most of the gig trying to find something in the performance I could appreciate. Wondering before that I might not exactly enjoy the gig, I was confident of having some kind of experience, if not the divine variety. Even if unable to appreciate the music, to enjoy their commitment, their talent, and the infamous gravity of their live performances would have been enough.
Instead I don’t remember much at all. I don’t remember experiencing transcendence in the heart of a maelstrom of sound, or being moved by a performance that obliterated my expectations. I don’t remember being at one with a crowd whose applause grew louder at the end of every song and who were united in their knowledge that they were experiencing something truly extraordinary. Something that does endure in my mind is how the concert ended. Gira mumbled as he left the stage that they perhaps would not be coming back to Nottingham, after the guitarist made a point of coming forwards to applaud his audience at the end of their marathon set. Well done for lasting this long I guess.
By Kieran Hallam