Review: SWANS & Sir Richard Bishop @ The Arches 16/11/12

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Experiencing a band who have retained their musical integrity over a thirty year period is not a daily pleasure; it’s a grand event. Swans’ appearance in Glasgow carried with it high expectations, and with support from Sir Richard Bishop it made for a promising line-up. Ticket price was reasonable for The Arches, and certainly merited by the band’s industrious career: exceeding thirty releases.

The tour follows the release of one of 2012’s more interesting albums: The Seer. The artwork introduces the stark contrast heard in the music, and was in all manners a release concerned with every nuance of the sound. The title-track’s 32-minute duration and bagpipe/percussion introduction brings to mind Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s East Hastings, but soon ascends above and beyond in the moody excitement of Swans’ rich, rolling and diverse constructs. The track is largely representative of Swans live: in the course of a two-hour show we were subjected to only six songs, but each successive track sapped more sanity and drove the sheer weight of the sound into the audience.

The crowd varied in age and well-represented the diverse appeal of Swans’ music. As support, Sir Richard Bishop’s music promised a fine and delicate contrast to the onslaught which followed. What he presented, however, was a dirtier, more convoluted sound. To watch his fingers it was clear that technically his playing was precise, even in its more chaotic motions, yet the sound was dense and reverberated angrily through the venue’s halls.

            Perhaps the sound was rougher than Sir Richard Bishop had intended, but it was better suited to the thick sound of Swans. The speakers emitted waves which had both the air and architecture energized, the arch vibrating to the extent that old confetti fell in ones and twos from the rafters, the atmosphere made all the dirtier by their resemblance to rizla skins. Swans’ set incorporated a vibrant percussion section, one drum kit playing throughout while a second musician played gong, tubular bells, cymbals and (though it didn’t once penetrate the wall of sound) violin.

Between songs there was a short window in which to recover, before another torrent of buildups and drum-based transitions assaulted the body. Much of the crowd adopted a trancelike state, while on-stage Gira proved engaging to watch. His playing was energised and when he stopped moving it was only to conduct, or, more correctly, to wildly gesture at his colleagues. It displayed an affinity which connected the band members, and seemed to be at the heart of the tight, instinctive sound – even when the message embodied in a gesture was not wholly understood. The evening closed to Avatar, one of three tracks taken from ‘The Seer’, and followed a song from an album they are yet to finish. The applause came well-deserved, and the band acknowledged it proudly.

As I left The Arches, I was conscious of still being shrouded by vibrations, as if I were hallucinating the chaotic climate I had grown accustomed to. To say it was a perfect show would trivialize the importance of the sound – had the band been much lighter in their style, the acoustics would have been intolerable, and much of the nuance was lost in reverb. But, in forcing highly-energized waves down a corridor full of people, they explored music passing beyond the boundary of discernibility, and into a chaotic wave of palpable air.

Words: Anthony Allen



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