Net Nuggets 41: SWANS Live at Yesterday's All Tomorrow's Parties, Today!

In October, Young God Records was set to release We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head—a live document of material from SWANS' promotional tour of its 2010 reunion album, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. It still isn't out, so while we're waiting for Godot, here's a recording from SWANS' appearance at last year's Portishead-curated All Tomorrow's Parties festival, I'll Be Your Mirror, at the Paramount Theatre in New Jersey on 1 October 2011.

The recording highlights the often inadequate distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian art. A studio recording is, generally, a wholly different affair to a live concert. A SWANS gig, for instance, is very much a bodily experience. What was touted as the band's final record (two double albums ago now) was somewhat misleadingly given the title Soundtracks for the Blind. «Misleadingly», because live, SWANS make music for the deaf. You don't need to bring your ears; the propulsion of sound reverberates throughout the entire body as the slow, repetitive waves of bass, drums and noise blow against it, giving the molecules that comprise you a healthy old rattle 'n' shake. Forget about discerning words, melody. We're talking primordial soup of vibrating static, everything a painful blur. SWANS live is pure masochistic joy! The spectacle of a possessed M. Gira riding both his band and audience members' demons like a fifth horseman of the apocalypse, astray and AWOL, to wrest any control you might think you had out of your weak, little hands only adds to the gluttonous punishment.

But as has always been the challenge for live albums, they can never convey the experience they attempt to record. Sometimes that's fine. More than a souvenir, the live album can give you an opportunity to hear details you missed the first time around, in all the eardrum shattering hiss. SWANS' last live album, 1997's Swans Are Dead, contained some of the most blissful, cathartically mournful, erotically frightening and finger snapping moments in the band's recorded history.

Toilet Guppies caught SWANS on their recent European tour in Berlin and in Oslo, and can say with some authority (I said «some») that what was a near-transcendental derangement of the senses in a live setting—the sheer volume obliterating the mind/body dualism—comes across as meandering and a little self-indulgent in mp3 format. Too bombastic to be used as background music, but not pummelling enough at 128 kbps through tiny, tinny iPod headphones or speakers to satisfy the average contemporary attention span, this is not a recording anybody is likely to listen to while taking the bus in the morning or doing the dishes in the evening. Nor while they're dancing, fucking or doing drugs, for that matter. Three of these tracks run for about 25 minutes, most of which is taken up by repeated Wagnerian percussive stomps, or cycles of slowly building marching drums. Live, these give rise to fear for your ears, before finally bringing your resistance to your knees. You surf numberless waves of hypnotic, all-enveloping sound until you wake up from a trance, once the music and the pain in your aural orifice has subsided. Sweat trickles out of waxen ears. Taken out of the concert venue and its formidable PA, however, the pieces drag on a bit. The songs are great—the surprisingly funky «Apostate», in particular, shines here—it's just that by the time they're wrapping up the intro, you've been waiting a quarter of an hour. It's like a particularly conscientious lover's never ending foreplay, always promising, but when will they deliver?

On Swans Are Dead, Jarboe's occasional lead vocal duties and funereal organ lent the proceedings much-needed variety, texture and, dare I say, femininity. There is no such respite on these recordings from the phallic three-guitar, one-bass, two-prong percussion attack. The pieces become much of a muchness, really, bleeding over into one another. Everything has that same structure, always cranked up to eleven, innit?

The above download, then, is mostly a souvenir for those who have witnessed the real thing, or else a curious document for those eager to eavesdrop on the process leading up to the already-recorded, but yet-to-be released follow-up to My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. This recording was originally uploaded by NPR as one long 128 kbps mp3 file some time ago. I've split the file into individual tracks. A no doubt far superior live document—mixed and mastered, without the glitches, culled from a multitude of concerts and in lossless quality—is set for release four months ago, and should be available in our lifetime. Sign up to Young God Records' mailing list for a notification upon its release.

For more of the same, but in far superior sound quality (at once far more compelling) and with admonitions to the Spanish people to overthrow their government, download a couple of songs performed by SWANS at Barcelona's Primavera Sound festival last May (care of WFMU and Free Music Archive):


  1. Wow - fantastic and insightful thoughts that I'd been struggling to articulate myself since hearing some live recordings from the recent tour - particularly as the longer pieces started to dominate the set - as I couldn't enjoy these as much as (you rightly mention) the live experience itself and also the astonishing energy/sound/performance captured on the Swans are Dead albums (sorry for the long sentence!).

    I am hopeful that the upcoming (soon, please!) live album will be a sonic assualt worthy of the band's live recorded history and that the recent studio recordings will have harnessed the glorious sounds heard live of the new tracks like Apostate, Avatar and The Seer through the Gira machinery which made older tracks like Feel Happiness, The Sound and Helpless Child some of the best recorded music ever commited to tape.

  2. Thanks, Anon. Recorded music lulls us into forgetting the spontaneous, unfolding communion the live experience can be. Or perhaps «communion» is a bit naïve/generous. Thankful and grovelling subjugation, more like. But that has its place, too. (Just don't ask me to applaud when Gira goose steps around the stage, mooning the audience in response to its appreciation. I do have standards.)

  3. I would imagine that interested parties have received notification from Michael Gira that the live record is now available for sale.

  4. Actually, the limited edition live record is sold out, after only two days.