Swans/Little Annie – Birmingham, The Asylum – 24 May 2017 Print E-mail
Written by Rich Hobson   
Saturday, 10 June 2017 05:00

As one of the most innovative and amorphous bands in the music world, you never really know what you’re going to get with Swans from one year to the next. Formed in 1982 and hailing from New York (the mecca of all freaks, artistes and professional outcasts), Swans have inhabited every genre from noise to goth, industrial to alternative with only one key constant: this is a band that is utterly and totally uncompromising. It’s safe to say then, that given the opportunity to get my eardrums rattled for the final time by the band (in their current incarnation at least) is one that can’t be sniffed at.


And rattled, eardrums most certainly are. Arriving at the venue on a blazing summer day (one of six we’re allowed in the UK), staff are outside before the show even starts handing out ear-protectors. A good first impression.


Little Annie 1

Stepping into the venue, we arrive for the opening set by prolific New Yorker Little Annie. Theatrically bent, the music of Little Annie is a huge departure from the harshest and most dissonant elements of Swans, yet the choice to put the dainty, piano-backed singer on as support feels like a natural choice to highlight the pure eclecticism of the evening at hand. Every inch an artist, Annie is a captivating figure, her music dripping in theatrical drama that could see it pop up in the West End, or as a particularly great radio play.


On-stage at just half past six, Annie plays to a room which is decidedly emptier than she deserves, yet gives a performance as though she plays to a sell-out room. Addressing the audience congenially between songs, she creates an atmosphere which is at once warm yet also fragile. Dwarfed in the cavernous room and a given a huge stage to prowl, she nonetheless provides a memorable and impressive introduction to the evening’s proceedings, backed ably by the jazz-tinted leanings of Paul Wallfisch (pulling double-duty for the night).




And then, it begins. Taking to the stage within ten minutes of Annie departing, Swans have come to take no prisoners tonight. The assault begins almost immediately, a solid wall of feedback and howling noise that stretches out into infinity, silencing the whole room and demanding total attention as the band bore away into each and every individual in the room’s minds. And on it goes. And on. And on, ad infinitum, the howling dissonance a hellish drone-noise soundscape that would do Sunn O))) or Merzbow proud.


Swans 1

Almost a full hour passes with the band defiantly staring away from the audience, a stark contrast to the theatricality of Little Annie as Swans do away with any sense of performative musicianship. By the time the distinctive metronomic riff of ‘Screen Shot’ appears, it feels like an oasis in the desert of noise, the impact massive as the band bounce along steadily to the rhythmic song. Fully utilising their drone tendencies, Swans 2017 bear little resemblance to the goth-leaning band of the ‘90s, their noise origins only apparent in the vicious aural displays they put on. Instead, what we get is mesmerising, the repetitive riffs and rhythms creating an atmosphere of rapt excitement, the band feeling like a loaded spring from song to song.


Though their setlist might be short, their songs are long and meandering, psych-like trips into the abyss of musical anti-pop as the band carefully traverse new soundscapes. The one-two whammy of ‘Cloud of Forgetting’ and ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ stretches out like a barren plain, Gira’s vocal decidedly harsher and insidious than on record, a from-the-gut intonation lending it a shamanic feel. While the band might seem entrenched into an apocalyptic anti-pop jam, the truth is every movement feels as meticulously planned as any orchestra or musical movement before it, precise and dramatic in its own intense way.


Micheal Gira 1

A short sharp shock of punkish energy towards the end of the set serves as a lightning bolt to the ears and by the time Swans have uncoiled for their final number, the room is swaying and dancing to the rhythm as they play out their final dissonant beats. Assuredly not a show for pop lovers (or rock or punk, for that matter) Swans exist in a world of pure, undiluted and colossal artistry, where anything goes. Though the drone-like atmosphere of the gig was entirely unexpected (I am, after all, just an inductee into Michael Gira’s world of musical experimentation), the fact remains that Swans accomplish what they do with an undoubtable and unyielding sense of no quarter, backed by a colossal atmosphere that makes their gigs entirely unlike anybody else.




All content © Über Rock. Not to be reproduced in part or in whole without the express written permission of Über Rock.