I never got around to writing about Swans’ last Vienna concert in 2014 or whenever it was, so this review can probably stand as a review of that one as well, especially since not much has changed chez Michael Gira since that time. Other than by exchanging Thor Harris for a new, nondescript and barely noticeable keyboard player, the group has declined to refine its approach from previous outings. The long, monotonous riffs, rudimentary songwriting and entirely predictable use of dynamics (The loud bit! The quiet bit! The loud bit again!) are all present and correct, testaments to the creative dead end into which Gira has steered himself since reactivating Swans six years ago.
In fairness, Gira probably realizes that the game is up, since he’s let it be known that this round of touring is likely to be the last in this iteration of Swans. Of course he made similar statements in 1996-97, as he prepared to bring down the curtain on the first version of the group. Back then, though, his reasons were partly musical and partly about being fed up with toiling away in the face of a largely indifferent public. Even as they toured one of the most rewarding albums of their career, Soundtracks for the Blind, Swans were finding it hard to connect to audiences and taste-makers (no Pitchfork or Quietus then). I witnessed this indifference first-hand from my vantage point at the merchandise table on the 1997 European tour. There was the show in Austria where 50 people turned up, the show in Germany that was cancelled due to advance ticket sales of five, the ignominy of a “farewell” show in the malodorous basement that was the LA2 in London. This was not how I wanted to remember a group I had supported and admired for ten long years.
Naturally, all that has changed since 2010. Swans are now firmly established as the darlings of avant rock, playing to the largest audiences of their career and receiving uniformly positive reviews for their marathon albums and live performances. I wouldn’t dream of begrudging Gira one moment of his success, but I can’t help feeling that something important has been lost along the way.
A lot of this has to do with songform. No matter how obdurate and monolithic the early Swans got, they never lost sight of the fact that they were songwriters, and those songs told stories. (Consider the strong equivalence between Gira’s early songs and the stories collected in his book The Consumer.) Once Jarboe joined the group, they had someone whose intuitive grasp of melody and harmony fused with Gira’s lyrical and dramatic gifts to produce masterpieces like White Light from the Mouth of Infinity, Love of Life and The Great Annihilator. The four post-2010 releases, as impressive and draining as they are, lack the controlled intensity of great songwriting, preferring to build ever more sprawling sonic structures in the service of a transcendence that is endlessly deferred.
Swans in 2016 are in the happy position of being more or less immune to criticism. No matter how I try to articulate what I disliked so much about Saturday’s concert – the ponderous one-chord riffs, the desultory attempts at songcraft, Gira’s increasingly messianic demeanour – some jumped-up Swans fanboy will pipe up and tell me that that’s the whole point. It’s meant to be loud, he will say, it’s meant to be repetitive, it’s meant to go on forever. All of which may be true, but doesn’t help to explain why I left this concert feeling so thoroughly irritated and dissatisfied.