Gig review: Swans at The Cockpit, Leeds

Swans. Picture: Fionn Reilly

Swans. Picture: Fionn Reilly

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About an hour into tonight’s epic, positively punishing set, Swans drummer Phil Puleo launches into a solo.

A spot of nimble wrist-work or technical showing-off, perhaps? Not quite: Puleo simply hammers a section of his kit with a vicious fury that suggests there’s serious beef between the musician and his instrument.

This snapshot says a lot about Swans. The band built a reputation as the most confrontational band in existence during their late 80s/early to mid-90s peak. The New York outfit haven’t mellowed one bit since their recent reunion, which (very much against the unwritten rules of bands getting back together) has resulted in some of their very finest work, such as 2012’s monumental The Seer and brand new To Be Kind, the stretched-out, slowly igniting contents of which dominate the nostalgia-dodging setlist.

Boss Swan Michael Gira isn’t quite as scary these days as his mean reputation from past decades suggests (there’s even a smile to the brave fans in the front). He’s a formidable presence nonetheless, gesticulating up and down like a particularly un-cute duckling trying to learn how to fly, staring out the capacity crowd, beating the living daylights out of his guitar or issuing what appear to be stern directives to the rest of the six-piece: encountered on a dark street, you’d be forgiven for crossing over to the other side.

Judging by the hellish volume, Gira must be telling the band to play even louder. Ironically for a band named after a mute bird, Swans live isn’t so much enjoyed as endured, a full body wash of cleansing, bracing heavy noise. At its most brutal (the closing barrage, during which a single chord isn’t so much repeated endlessly as it is driven deeper towards the core of the earth with relentless brute force, the volume seemingly creeping up to ever more health and safety-averse readings, is particularly merciless), tonight’s set essays the type of evil racket extreme metallers must dream of creating.

Were that all there is to Swans, the uncompromising dedication to eardrum-endangering noise and bug-eyed intensity might accrue elements of unintentional comedy. However, there’s nuance and depth on show here. Selections (it seems wrong to refer to performances stretching to quarter of an hour and beyond as ‘songs’) such as the simmering Just a Little Boy and the uncharacteristically brief, almost-ballad Don’t Go pulsate with a majestic, desolate beauty, like ancient folk or blues laments pumped up with some distinctly unsavoury growth hormones and handed over for a workout with a deranged street preacher. Even more thrillingly, A Little God in My Hands throbs with menacing, distinctly mean-tempered funk, not that far removed from what Can might sound like in a record-breaking foul mood.

After a while you get it: the noise, the screeching, the sheer gargantuan scale of this singularly unsettling music isn’t really about aggression. Simply, this is a band that will do anything necessary to get their point across. “Have you been to the church today?” Gira asks the Sunday night crowd. “We are there at the moment,” someone responds. The audience member has a point. A Swans show is an all too rare chance to bow down at the altar of pure music-making, totally free of compromises and attempts to please. It’s a spectacle worth experiencing, even if you might opt out of repeat visits.

Gig date: June 1