Swans, Vienna Arena, 22 October 2016

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 dingy 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 drivelling 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.

Peter Rehberg, Geneva Cave12, 28 September 2016

Since I’m now based part of the time in Geneva, this blog, never frequently updated at the best of times, is becoming more sporadic than ever. There are a few decent venues in Geneva, but on the whole the live music scene is far quieter than it is in Vienna. For some reason there seem to be more concerts in the neighbouring cities of Lausanne and Vevey than there are in Geneva, even though they are both much smaller, which blows.

Anyway, since moving here in July I’ve only been to two concerts. The first of these was Cat Power, which I may get around to reviewing at some point (although I wouldn’t hold your breath). It was a great pleasure, though, to catch up with Peter Rehberg last week on the first date of a mini Swiss and French tour. The venue, Cave12, seems to be the nearest equivalent to the Rhiz in Geneva, with an impressive roll-call of visitors from the avant rock, noise and experimental music scenes. Centrally located just a few minutes’ walk from the main station, staffed by friendly people and with a PA that has plenty of wallop, Cave12 gets the thumbs up from me.

The last time I saw Rehberg live was back in March at the Rhiz, when he opened for Consumer Electronics – a highly enjoyable evening which I never got around to reviewing for this blog. That evening was notable, among other things, for the fact that Pita had left his Macbook at home and was playing, for the first time I could remember, off some kind of modular synth setup called a Eurorack – an arrangement that he also brought to Geneva. Now I have only the barest understanding of what this means, but speaking as an audience member, the change is dramatic. Instead of staring impassively at a laptop screen, the performer focuses on a range of modules festooned with dials and differently coloured cables, making adjustments to them in real time. From a purely visual standpoint it makes for a far more satisfying experience, invoking as it does the boffin-scientist image that remains key to the iconography of electronic music.

As for the music, that too seemed to benefit from the change in the way it was delivered. Over the course of his 45-minute set, Rehberg generated a single, constantly changing piece that was more variegated and hard-hitting than any I’ve heard him play before. Making few concessions to audience members’ hearing (earplugs were available, although I demurred), Rehberg ramped up the noise levels with explosive shards of frequencies, while deep sub-bass drones threatened to crack the floor open. It could have been the power of suggestion, but I certainly felt that the modular setup brought a more organic, earthier and less clinical edge to proceedings. As Pita busied himself with the plethora of wires and dials in front of him, the music modulated from visceral sludge to moments of Kraftwerkian beauty and proto-Ambient shimmer. For the most part, though, the atmospheres conjured up were distinctly unheimlich, sounding like the despairing cries of some stricken, hydra-headed monster.