The Waterfront, Norwich August 23, 2023
by Niki Jones
It’s the eternal question that every avid gig goer has asked, the one that lurks over every pre-gig drink, that lingers over every scrutiny of the train timetable: “Can we be bothered with the support band?”
Obviously, you want to support live music, but the beer is so much more expensive in there, plus you haven’t caught up with Susan in months (there is no Susan, by the way – it’s hypothetical…).
So, huge kudos to the Swans fans of Norwich for turning up in their numbers to watch a man play echoey sounds through a guitar for 30 minutes, for ’tis the reward of every punctual music fan at The Waterfront this evening.
Norman Westberg is a frequent collaborator with tonight’s headliners, having contributed to most of their albums since their 1983 debut Filth. In typically enigmatic fashion, he is not part of the current Swans touring line-up and instead he plays the warm-up act – a job he either pulls off with aplomb or with abject disregard for anyone else’s enjoyment.
It’s hard to say for, as already alluded to, his set consists entirely of him making ambient noises through his guitar whilst twiddling knobs and dials on a synthesiser. And, just in case this isn’t already strange enough, he occasionally turns over a glass egg timer which sits on the aforementioned synth. It seems almost pointless to attempt any form of objective appraisal.
As the precursor to any other band’s set it would be an act of madness (try it in front of a Metallica crowd and see what happens). But as a warm-up to Swans, it oddly fits. Whether you like it or not is almost irrelevant.
Michael Gira and his merry band of Swans have always been provocateurs, playing at tinnitus-inducing volume, picking fights with anyone caught headbanging, and constantly evolving their sound seemingly in order to alienate anyone who had any preconceptions of them.
Their career has seen them change from no-wave noise terrorists to industrial agitators, through psychedelia, Americana, experimental rock and so much more.
You can never tell what you’re going to get. The only guarantee is that it won’t be what you expect.
Tonight, Gira takes a seat centre stage, first asking that the lights be turned up a little on the audience. In the hands of most frontmen, this would be an inclusive moment. In the hands of Gira, it almost seems like a threat – he’s watching you, behave yourself.
He leads the band into the eerie opening strains of The Beggar, the title track from their new album – a two-disc, two-hour nightmarish opus which tonight makes up the lion’s share of the set, and it is clear from the off that we are not in for an easy ride.
This is uneasy listening, not for the faint-hearted. It’s an unsettling mix of drone metal, murder ballad country, and freeform experimental soundscapes, like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds writing the soundtrack to an episode of Black Mirror that’s being directed by David Lynch.
It becomes so freeform in places that Gira often throws his hand up, conducting the band, signalling the changes and, as the volume swells, holding the songs in the palm of his hand with just enough control to stop it spilling into chaos.
The lurching The Hanging Man from 2019’s Leaving Meaning brings an element of order to the noise with its hypnotic backbeat, Gira wailing and droning like a demented preacher.
While Ebbing is almost, dare we say, quite pretty in an unnerving, haunted church, camp sort of way.
The prettiness doesn’t hang around for long. A frankly alarming reinterpretation of The Memorious sees drummer Larry Mullins rattling sleigh bells, while Kristof Hahn and Dana Schecter take their frustrations out on lap steels while Gira conducts the cacophony, never quite giving us the release of the driving metre from the recorded version.
The lilting No More Of This is the closest the band come to showing us mercy this evening. It’s a moving version of one of the most melodic moments on the new album and a much needed breather before the colossal closing chimera of Leaving Meaning / Cloud of Unknowing / Birthing sees this near two-hour set come to a monumental close.
Tonight is an assault on the senses, a visceral experience rather than a collection of songs. It’s exhausting and gratifying in equal measure.
Thank goodness for ear plugs.