Wednesday, April 9, 2008
London University Union
Melody Maker, March 1st 1986
By Simon Reynolds
They took the stage looking a little like Grand Funk Railroad, but the Swans present a torture of sound as radical as Einsturzende Neubauten's. There are no melodies, no riffs even - bass and synthesizer are played percussively, combining with the drums as a single instrument.
The Swans songs consist of a single motif or sequence repeated with minimal variation, lurching forward at a punishingly slow pace. The guitar fills in the sound with surges and slashes of ugly noise. Michael Gira's voice is just another loop of abraded texture, an endless scar. And the Swans play very loud.
At times they're like agonized crawling things (some grim humour that they should adopt a name so symbolic of grace and dignity). At other times they sound like pop's abbatoir: only Glitter's "Rock 'N' Roll, Part Two" and the bleakest Killing Joke have approached a rock this merciless, this dehumanized, this dead. Perhaps Swans music exists at the point where the organic and inorganic meet, where the most degraded forms of life shade into the mechanicals.
Some bands use noise to blow the mind. The Swans music acts more like a compression of consciousness, a soul mangling. We were frozen in their noise, our minds unable to wander.
The only comparable experience I've had recently is the latest Cabaret Voltaire performances. Kirk and Mallinder used electronics of formidable opacity, percussively, to achieve a similar effect -- total sensory assault, an involuntary, joyless seizure of the attention.
For the Swans take rock beyond pleasure, beyond joy, to a realm where they can only be submission. What they find attractive in rock is not its liberating energy, its breaking free and emotional release. No, they have perceived in rock an urge to abasement, a repetition complex. This they've isolated and intensified, using the hypnotizing power of repetition, its compulsion, as a metaphor for the mechanisms of social bondage. They explore the sado-masochism at the roots of power psychology, by implicating us in a performance whose pleasure, whose hold, is essentially masochistic. Their music functions as both analogue and working example of the libidinisation of pain.
I don't know why the Swans want to take themselves, and us, so low. But I can't help but be impressed. Without particularly wanting to attend one of their concerts again.