Swans at Primavera © Geraint Davies


Roundhouse, London

It’s all just a pathetic fantasy. That prescribed catharsis. That self-imposed euphoria you’re forced to feel. You scan the room knowing that while they thrash away at the air, eyes to the ceiling, they feel nothing. Their tribalism is a product of delusion. And you know as you pivot from one uncomfortable spot to the next, the room’s performers are wholly indifferent to you. They play out the same homogenous routine as the night before, thank you for the applause and leave dulled from physical exertion. And that’s it. Show over.

But then you see Swans and there is something honest in their perpetuity. If you steal a moment’s gaze away from the sonic abyss, Swans coil you back. There is no routine, just hours trapped in to some kind of instrumental exorcism.

Around this time last year, Swans had only begun to tour their 13th studio album, To Be Kind. Almost a year later, Swans are playing their largest UK show ever at the Roundhouse. The space is like a giant birdcage. Arched pillars encircle the building’s lower tier. Wherever you stand, you feel cornered by overbearing metal and ironwork. Beneath faded spotlights, Thor Harris gently strokes a gong. His beating causes an almost erosive ambience. Minutes and minutes and minutes go by. The climate is still. Members of the group trickle in one at a time. Michael Gira arrives last. He reapplies fabric to his elbow as a cushion against the body of his guitar. The volume grows and voices are lost in the ramshackle.

Somewhere beyond the drone begins Frankie M. Clanking and cranking and scratching at their instruments, Gira flits from an bottom-bellied ohm to hysterical yelps. He glares so intensely at his band, commandeering all of their movements. If he wants more, he’ll fucking get it. Gira jumps and as his feet hit the ground it’s like an emergency shutdown. Swans are silent.

The applause throughout the night is slightly delayed. No one can ascertain when Gira expects an ovation. And it continues this way for two and a half hours. The rugged bass twangs of A Little God In My Hands materialises and repeats. It’s a fundamental component to Swans’ live performance. Emerge, build, repeat, build, repeat, repeat, repeat. Psychotic in its adamancy. The Cloud of Unknowing appears, repeats, disappears. I Forget appears and disappears. There is no relaxing, more of a bodily purging. 

Swans end with Bring The Sun/Black Hole Man. The sound is immeasurable. You end up feeling different, like you’ve completed a dianetics conditioning session. There’s a sense of relief but also one that yearns to be back inside Swans’ cocoon. Every time you get the opportunity to see Swans, it’s like they pour salt in to your mind’s eye. Gira’s group are the controllers of chaos and still one of the only bands where the manic euphoria they inflict is truly authentic.