Swans: The man who refused to be unhappy

Swans | Islington Assembly Hall | 13 October 2016

This is the end. The current Swans line-up are hitting the road one last time. But, as always, it’s on their own terms. So, no nostalgia, no pandering, no greatest hits. Instead, the New York noise gods are bidding farewell – for now – with thunderous performances showcasing not just their sublime new album, ‘The Glowing Man’, but also music so new it’s not yet been committed to tape.

Like set opener ‘The Knot’. An evolution of 2010’s ‘No Words No Thoughts’, it begins as an ambient bed of string and keyboard textures, with frontman Michael Gira – back turned to the audience – initially holding back the tide, leading his band through the steady rise in volume, intensity, and tension. The anticipation swells, and there’s a palpable sense of emotional release when the wave finally crashes in a crescendo of guitars, drumming, and Gira’s increasingly animated gestures. The comedown is equally gradual and, punctuated by the frontman’s baritone vocals, no less powerful, a masterclass in the time-warping effect of repetition.

So too is the urgent ‘The Man Who Refused To Be Unhappy’. Debuted just days earlier in Brighton, it’s certainly more direct but, by repeating the driving riff, creates a similar – and not at all unpleasant – sensation of all-encompassing disorientation. That’s paired with a feeling of anticipation that builds every time the band begin another song – whether it’s the swinging groove of 2014’s ‘Screen Shot’ or the back-to-back prayers ‘Cloud of Forgetting’ (its majestic ascent characterised by Gira’s almost tender intonations) and sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes angelic, always haunting ‘Cloud of Unknowing’.

This adds up to an emotional connection with the music, leaving audience members more active participants than passive observers. So when Gira and his band hit the final notes of a seismic ‘The Glowing Man’ – a song that underlines the complexity, nuance, and scope – of Swans’ recent work – there’s an instant sense of loss and, soon after, mourning. This is the end.

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