Mouth to Mouth: Swans - Koko, London 04/04/13
Stay at home, stay in bed, ask no one on Twitter what are the best headphones you can buy from what's in your dwindling bank account. Purchase (or not) your favourite albums to engross yourself in for an introspective pleasure in the comforts of your surroundings, wrapped-up in the safety of night. Try - and fail - to forget that everything is a bit shit, this unremitting winter didn't transpire, and this egregious government isn't in the grips of assimilating something akin to the Stanford prison experiment amongst their ranks.
Alternately go to an event such as Mouth to Mouth like the coterie of gig-goers did at Koko, the inaugural festival curated by Swans head honcho Michael Gira, featuring a phantasmagorical line-up - Grouper, Xiu Xiu, Ben Frost, Mercury Rev and of course Gira's own Swans. Rather disparate acts when scrutinised what with each using often-opposing mediums, traversing through genres dichotomous to one another; yet each possessing a shared ethos in terms of their art, and more importantly the innovational aspect of the live experience. This is the gig goer’s gig. Acts who "set fire to the air" as Gira states, musicians always on the front-foot - "Science advances one funeral at a time" so the quote by German physicist Max Planck goes, this could be applied to the evolving nature of live music as the driving force in a complacent music industry of spiraling decline
Here's my blow-by-blow of Mouth to Mouth.
As the flimsy snow flirts horizontally outside Camden's Koko the thought of fire in the air appeals (so how about that weather? And how about that weather doing wonders for small talk?), I walk to the vertiginous venue for a little after 5:30, and brace myself for a punishing schedule with over six hours of music. And potentially very punishing music at that. Grouper has already started, a fact that is not immediately apparent due to the oh-so soft sounds stemming from below as I swan around the upper balconies, with Koko feeling particularly cavernous that is due to a) the relatively parsimonious nature of the crowd (hell it's only 5:40) and b) the hushed tones of Liz Harris's music.
I, and many more gather to the front at ground level, huddling ever closer, leaning in to what has to be said. "Gather round, come to the front, I'll tell you all a secret" is what the continuous, washed-ambient celestial sounds seem to say. Harris is sitting alone on a dark stage, high contrast lighting cutting her the mysterious yet accessible figure, as she soaks the venue in a reverb-laden pool, occasionally inserting tapes into a tape deck for a transcendent lo-fi background hiss on a delay. Her vox are always inaudible in terms of lyrical content, heavily camouflaged in gentle, fragile echoes. The feeling created is akin to hypnagogic whispers from the person you're most intimate with, as you lie in bed not in the conscious world - you have no idea of the actual semantics of these whispers, but the immersive warm feeling they behold is absolute. The logic of a dream world.
At times the girl from Portland, Oregon is motionless… one… two… three… four… five seconds pass, like a piece of performance art. The final 10 minutes see a shift in volume - the dream-state whispers turning into a wake-up call and spitting you out to the waking world with the final moments seeing a drawn-out, sparse series of crashes… one… two… three… CRASH. One……. two….. three……. …. CRASH. Diminishing always. Like counting for thunder when you were a kid. Yeah, inspiring nostalgia, without the music being nostalgic in itself. The set is a beautiful yet intangible experience and an intense undulated pleasure - crowd utterly reverential that is vital to the delicate atmosphere. Somehow I think Swans may have a slightly different vibe.
"All for you baby, baby all for you
You took the hammer and smashed my head, you took the razor and slashed your throat.
Baby I love you"
Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu is a but of a fucked up character in many ways and embodies this fully in his work, creating intricate and frequently highly sexualised worlds with tales of arduous love, self-torture, self-loathing. The lyric above sums him up in a microcosm - though that is actually from The Greenwood Singers track 'All Fo' You', an obscure US-based choir group from the 60's covered by Stewart here. He's by himself tonight and that vulnerability is inevitably heightened consequently, well I say by himself - throughout the set a surreal background of recorded chatter, birds tweeting and other noise accompany him (I hear a train chuntering through at one point).
A heavily religious motif is evident for the 40 minutes, playing songs mostly not of Xiu Xiu - such as with a working of well-known hymn 'Just As I Am' originally written by Charlotte Elliott in 1835 but also covered by Willie Nelson. "Come, come to the church" he pleads at one point in his unambiguous spellbinding voice - drifting from a muted tenderness to a lamenting, auditorium-filling wail in the turn of a word. From quotidian experiences to a tragic, violent tale. Melancholy to, well, a deeper melancholy; his storytelling parlance is only that of Jamie Stewart. On this Gira goes on to say later that Stewart is "the most talented, unique vocalists in the world today" and he's pretty bang on - though certainly a decisive one - still no need for a few arseholes round me talking during the set as he pours his heart out on stage (who thankfully do go to the bar halfway through).
"Jesus fucking Christ oh God no"
I've talked at length about the overwhelming power and devastating nature of the Ben Frost live experience - my mind being opened then torn apart systematically by a performance at the superb avant-garde Semibreve Festival, held in Portugal. A festival that draws some parallels with Mouth to Mouth as it goes. Anyway the adopted-Icelander is capable of various types of instrumental sets dependent on the situation, what is guaranteed regardless of set-up is that it'll make for a visceral electronic assault.
The set is one of fervent fury that utilises a degree of dynamic range (i.e. the quiet bits quiet, the loud bits loud), but not stretched out like he can; this is more of his intense, unrelenting side. Two drummers accommodate him onstage using organic kits as Frost commands proceedings over his Laptop, though it's certainly not purely about the alien-armageddon sound created; the behemothic bass produced vibrates the floor of Koko with a great and alarming omnipotence, as the waves from this pulsate through my body and play Ping-Pong with my internal organs.
My vision is also violated by unrelenting, excessive strobe patterns, and for a period when all these are at their height in a machine-gun, rapid-fire crescendo towards the end of the set, it feels as if I can't breath. The pressure on my chest is huge, like drowning in a vacuum, the air being pulled out of the room. "Jesus fucking Christ oh God no" is immediately in my thoughts - the opening to BSP track 'Fear of Drowning', that is an apt title. It almost hurts. Some people leave. The double dropping of paracetomol I must say added to the whole thing, pacey-silhouettes and flashed trail of faces burnt into my sight, layering on top of one another. And I've still got Swans to get through after this?! God help us all.
"The Illusion of being loud"
I look around and from time-to-time catch knowing smiles between the crowd who are with each other, knowing glances that say "holy fuck"; no words are needed - not that you would ever have heard anything said, given the sheer volume. However. A lot of what's going on is about the illusion of being loud, a phenomenon expertly crafted by Frost via two means: One is the transition from quiet moments to loud moments - a slow rise rolling you into thinking the loud sections are the loudest thing you'll ever hear when they're not - they just are by comparison. With the second being the barrage of other senses as mentioned; if you can feel the noise, you'll think of the actual sound as noisier right?
I skip Mercury Rev for some much needed dinner (hey I came straight from the office okay?), a sit down, and a moment to stretch my mind and mentally prepare myself for over two hours of Swans. The anticipation is palpable once I return; everyone present has heard stories, perhaps mythical, of faintings, or vomitings and so on.
"Carving up Koko in an incendiary fashion."
2012's aphotic-ambient, long-form album The Seer was something of a magnum opus for Swans, Gira stating the two-hour epic as "the culmination of every previous Swans album", over 30 years after their inception (though he has since downplayed that comment somewhat). It's not any track from The Seer that starts our journey into our time-hole of a world this eve, and it turns out that little will be (Gira referring to completed albums as "dead matter") - the intro, 'To Be Kind', is one of a grouchy monster slowly awakening, heavy foot dragging sound, building up to an erect dominating position and bellowing from a lofty perspective. Until we get our first roar 15 or so minutes in, a CRUNCH that carves up Koko in an incendiary fashion.
Initially it's an adjustment to absorb what's going on in regards to the abrasive scene unfolding, but once you've aligned yourself with Gira and co onstage in their perspicacity of sound, you are in. You are one. A hypnosis locks into the air as equally hypnotic rhythms surface during 'Mother of the World', or rather a working of the track - in ant act of self-insurrection the album as a structure is abandoned, a whole new universe is created live. During atavistic 1980's Swans track 'Coward', sparse, silent moments engulf Koko in a terrifying manner, this tension allowed to hang in the air that is littered with ghostly sonic-debris, only for crushing guitars to pierce violently, your stomach left behind in free-fall. Punctured souls healed by mercy.
Coarse guitar feedback sits comfortably next to pounding percussion as the outrageous melange of genres toy mercifully with each other - heavy rock stylings tinged with psychedelia that can turn bluesy, arguably all under the building momentum of krautrock/morotik tendencies. Which makes it sound horrible, but is anything but.
Gira is possessed. During the third track (around 45 minutes in naturally) he unleashes a series of primal, blood-curdling yells with a ferocious force, and when he's not screaming he steps back from the mic, mouthing words to himself, eyes-closed in a trance-like state. On some numbers he's not on guitar duty such as with 'Coward' we get to see some serious moves, raising his arms spasmodically on each crashing note that seem to last forever, the repetition of driving, apocalyptic music mimicked in the repetition of his indomitable moves. The (surprisingly) stark, bright nature of the lighting means there's no escape and every move is on show. It looks exhausting, like he's punishing himself - but you'd bet that this apparent pain is his total pleasure. He even slaps his own face a few times over. As he says "you turn off the parts of the brain that would otherwise tell you that you're fatigued and exhausted".
"The illusion of improvisation"
Though it's not all about Gira, this is a collaborative approach. The drummer Thor is naturally a second figurehead by the sheer size of him - his Viking-esque (I can say that, he has Norwegian blood) nature evident in his flowing hair, shirt-off, thrashing the living shit out of his cymbals and drum kit - and often standing up like his fellow drummer to the right of him. Gira is of course the impresario but allowing the personality of each member to shine in a quasi-democracy; towards the important moments of pernicious strength all look to Gira, as they become an unbelievably tight unit yet possessing the sound and structure of something that seems unrehearsed; the illusion of improvisation. But you damn well know this is all astutely planned-out to a certain degree - prior to touring they spend a grueling eight hours a day practicing for months. This illusion heightened by us (the audience) not being familiar with the tracks - mostly all new material is presented, yet some forging of the new is apparent.
It's Michael Gira's version of Plato's Cave and we're the subservient prisoners with no knowledge of the outside world when we're here, watching the fires and shadows dance in a bastion of pure escapism.
Did you know that ashes aren't really ashes, much of it is actually ground-up bones? Illusions and rug-pullings, people.
I talked about the "illusion of being loud" for Frost; there's certainly no illusion here. It's eviscerating stuff. It's just really, really loud. With the language I'm using it may sound like I'm painting a picture of a chthonic, 'difficult' experience; however during many parts it's strangely a case of joyful euphoria, as tracks peak, climax, evolve and breakdown to start again, in an ever-continuing, incredibly hypnotic cycle. Sometimes it's a little better to travel than to arrive so the saying goes. Sure, it feels like you've seen into the centre of a cut-up serrated Earth and pinned-down by the devil, but you've given the beast a firm handshake coupled with piercing stare into his fiery eyes, grabbing him by the cojones. And it's okay, it's all okay. It's more than that, it's fun. All this to songs that grapple with life and death in a sea of endless, mind-fucking grooves created in front us by six men using organic sound. The latest album does work on the theme of childhood - as dark and bizarre it all is, once you look past this the hope and optimism of a young life is present. Look for it. Wait for it. And embrace it.
Just a cursory look around confirms this, it's a hoot to take a minute out and observe how individuals are taking it in. Some hold their arms in the air, pointing at the sound. Some go with every note, convulsing their body to each guitar-thrash, to each drum build. Some close their eyes and embody a state of osmosis for sound, seemingly unaware of their surroundings. The guy right-front of me guy is static - with mouth open, mesmerised, stare fixed. As Ben Frost observes the scene from his private balcony, also watching the crowd. Young faces. Old faces. Etiolated faces. Always transfixed faces.
It's a long way from the Swans of old (in terms of live and on record) based on second-hand accounts, gone are the no-wave-esque purely nebulous ties to create towering colosseums of unrivalled beauty on a biblical scale, soundscapes dense with desire working as an unstoppable cacophony, a benevolent electro-shock therapy outing. I just don't see how anything will ever be the same again. They're working on unrivaled levels, perhaps Scott Walker only capable of challenging them. At just before midnight with six hours of impassioned music behind me, and two hours of Swans, you'd think exhaustion would have set in - or even a bit of restless boredom and/or apathy. But it's testament to Swans - and all the acts involved - of their energetic verve and ability to take you to their own self-created spheres, that time becomes an irrelevance, coupled with loosing a sense of who you are. This is the raison d'etre of live music. Koko tends to get a lot of stick, but tonight the sound is excellent - shout out to them. For an evening the outside world is not there, and everything is not shit. And next year, let's hope for a day that everything will not be shit once again with Mouth to Mouth II. We need people like this to allow us into their wildly conflagrant world, and for us to help create their world on nights like tonight - from a respite against the commonplace world in which we normally inhabit.
Photos are not from Koko - plundered from The 405's photo archive
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This must be what it feels like for book reviewers when they have to form an opinion on an 800+ page novel by a deadline. This new, highly anticipated album by Swans is their twelfth, and is so ambitious and epic that it is hard for me to do it justice. I usually make a rule of six listens before I start to write down my opinions on any album, but given the excessive length of The Seer, I had to start halfway through my fourth. [read more]