In 1998 Swans released a live album called Swans Are Dead, a double CD from the group’s 1995 and 1997 tours. That title carried with it such a sense of finality and certainty that there seemed no prospect whatsoever of Swans getting back together again. In truth this wasn’t something that overly bothered me, even though Swans were then, and remain now, the most important group of my life. I had lived through every second of that marathon final 1997 tour of Europe, working the merchandise table every night on my own and travelling with the band and the rest of the crew in a big black tour bus. (See here for the story of how I came to be doing this.) Night after night I had heard the show begin with the crushing tumult of “Feel Happiness”, Michael Gira’s deeply affecting valediction to the band. The infernal chords of the introduction would fade away, leaving Gira to intone the words “I’m truly sorry for what I never did, and I forgive you too for your indifference”; and it seemed to me as though the sorrow and forgiveness he was singing about were universal, and that I was wholly and unavoidably implicated in them.
So I didn’t mourn the end of Swans, because I knew that my relationship with the group was special and would remain so. When Gira thanked me from the stage at the end of the final show of the tour – the last words he said to the audience that night – I felt a happiness of my own that the last thirteen years of Swans inactivity have done nothing to dispel.
How do I now feel about the resurrection of Swans, then? Vindicated, for a start. Smugly superior in the knowledge that while many, perhaps most, of those who experienced them in 2010 were doing so for the first time, I had been there many years before. And, naturally, possessed by a pure and genuine joy that this most mystical and terrifying of musical beasts is not dead after all, but alive and roaming the planet once again.
In the avalanche of groups that have reformed in the past several years there have only been two, before now, that I really cared about. The first is Van der Graaf Generator, which will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows how much of a Peter Hammill worshipper I am. The second, more surprisingly perhaps, was Dead Can Dance. The DCD reunion was sadly brief, and seemed to pass by unnoticed by all but a few devotees. After a series of triumphant live concerts, Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry retreated back into their respective hermetic cocoons, seemingly unable to make their musical partnership work again and leaving it to founder as it had done before.
What has any of this got to do with Swans? Not much, except to highlight that the case of Swans is different from that of both the above groups. As Gira has been at pains to point out, this is emphatically not a reunion, for the simple reason that the new Swans line-up differs from any Swans line-up that previously existed. It’s not as though Gira has been idle since 1997; in the five albums he made under the name Angels of Light, he continued to explore many of the lyrical themes and musical settings that Swans had done before. Indeed, Angels of Light were on occasion capable of flying just as close to the sun as Swans had done. In a sense, therefore, the resurrection of Swans is nothing more than a change of name for Gira’s principal project. But it’s more than that as well. Swans is a name, but it’s also a vision of the world, a way of seeing beauty in tragedy and tragedy in beauty, Hermann Nitsch’s Orgien Mysterien Theater reimagined for a rock audience.
That commingling of beauty and terror was what made me a Swans devotee right from the start, and it was in ample evidence during the two concerts I saw in December. The venues – a cavernous rock club and a sumptuous theatre – made for rather different experiences. In Vienna I was standing right at the front and so received the onslaught directly into my skull, while the more formal seated arrangement in Berlin made my listening more intent and focused. Both shows, though, banished any lingering doubts about nostalgia or revivalism with performances that bore the weight of Swans’ history while at the same time stepping out into territory that was new not only for Swans, but for rock music itself.
A lofty claim, you might think, but it’s one that’s fully justified by the immense rhetorical power of these performances. Gira is one of the most persuasive frontmen in rock, a gift that was largely hidden away in recent years while he adopted the classic singer-songwriter’s position, seated with an acoustic guitar. Now freed from those constraints, it’s as though he’s been unleashed from a coiled spring. Ceaselessly prowling the stage, his face contorted in shapes of ecstatic abandonment, he orchestrates the whole stupendous edifice – now taking the other musicians down into a moment of blissful quiet, now goading them into an ever mightier crescendo.
Gira’s deeply resonant baritone is shored up by the metallic sheets of noise issuing from Norman Westberg’s guitar and the thermonuclear battery of Phil Puleo’s drums. Rounded out by Christoph Hahn on lap steel guitar, Thor Harris on percussion and Chris Pravdica on bass, the Swans of 2010 is a snarling and majestic entity. Possessed by songs that gleefully expand from their recorded versions into long, exploratory compositions hewn from blood and skin, Swans’ subjugation of the audience operates as a path towards redemption and transcendence.