I’ll admit, my only knowledge of SWANS is that of a friend playing them back in the eighties; an album with a dollar sign on the sleeve (‘Greed’ 1986). My frazzled memory lumped them in with that ‘Butthole Surfers’/’Big Black’ school of American nut-job noise, with a side-serving of Psychick TV cultism.
Now, almost thirty years later, they decide to play in my adopted city and I’m too stingy to buy a ticket. Thankfully fate intervenes when a friend offers me a spare one, just when I’m on the verge of kicking myself, amidst the pre-gig facebook anticipation frenzy.
I meet Didier (my benefactor), who informs me that Jean won’t be attending as the band will play for three hours and he’s not standing up for that length of time – fair do’s, he’s in his sixties. Jean and Didier are the nucleus of shadowy reclusive experimentalists ‘48 Cameras’, who have collaborated with a veritable who’s who of oddballs during their thirty year existence (Genesis P Orridge, Stewart Staples and wouldn’t you know it, Swans frontman Michael Gira).
The newly-opened Reflektor is packed with Liège’s weirdest and strangest, along with a healthy contingent from Flanders, Holland and Germany. The younger audience members display their freak tendencies via band t-shirts and piercings, the older ones simply exude it.
The gig starts with ten minutes or so of percussion emanating from the cymbals of the drumkit and various tubular bells, steel sheets and gongs. The band members appear periodically, one by one. The steel guitar player looks like Tom Waits’ hard-bitten brother, rankled at being landed with a late shift at the packing plant on card-school night. The guitarist is a wiry goatee-bearded moonshiner. These are not men you would want to encounter on a Louisiana kayaking holiday. The intensity builds with each new musician until Michael Gira takes his place centre-stage to a ripple of cheers, which he dismisses or ignores. The conventions of showbiz have no place here; they’ve long since withered like an ill placed and neglected begonia in a crack den. Gira’s lank greasy hair and tortured demeanour set the tone. These men have serious business to attend to and it isn’t always going to be pleasant. You almost get the impression they’d carry it out in an empty room.
The songs are long, intense and all consuming. We as observers are freed from the shackles of normal gigs, where new material is interspersed with crowd pleasers (I could be wrong here, not being a diehard expert), and it feels like we’re immersed and dragged into their sonic vision of hell, heaven, redemption…and more hell. Some people leave, some can’t even contemplate a beer or a piss, rooted to the spot. This is no shambolic rant though; at times Gira throws vicious glances at his band members when they don’t measure up. He’s obviously spent so long in this vortex of galvanizing pain that he can spot a bum note from an anguished howl, even when the walls are melting.
Liberated from the anxiety of missing the big hit, I make regular forays to the bar, keeping us fuelled with strong 9% Belgian beers, then return to bathe in the cathartic assault of it. At the end, two and a half hours later, Gira allows himself some banter and introduces the band. There is no encore. What could follow that?
A Little God In My Hands
The Cloud of Unknowing
Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)
Bring the Sun / Black Hole Man