This August, experimental rock legends Swans head to Albert Hall to air their acclaimed, existential 16th album, The Beggar.
Formed in 1982 by singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira, Swans are one of the few acts hailing from the New York City-based no wave scene who are still creating vital-sounding music today.
Gira is now the only constant presence on each album, working in collective style with a rotating cast of contributors – often fantastic artists in their own right, from Anna von Hausswolff to Ben Frost. Shifting personnel in this way totally suits the project, which has always existed in a state of experimentation, cycling through noise rock to post punk, industrial to post rock.
Back in the 80s and early 90s Swans were routinely described as “the loudest experimental band in the world”. There’s tales of them locking the doors to concert halls to prevent audiences fleeing in horror. All these years later you might expect the 70-year-old Michael Gira to have tamed some. But his intensity is every bit as strong as it was, it just comes in different forms – and yes, slightly quieter ones.
The Beggar was written in the mire of covid lockdowns and the cancellation of tours for the previous Swans album Leaving Meaning. Gira calls that time a “bottomless pit” – one from which he wrote this new album. And man can you hear it. The unsettling, claustrophobic unease, the big questions about life and mortality, it’s not necessarily a pleasant listen. But spinning a Swans record and expecting a pleasant listen is like watching the news in 2023 and hoping for a cheap giggle.
‘The Parasite’ kicks us off and sets the tone. Dark, mysterious, lingering, it grows from sparsely strummed acoustic guitar to a cacophony of quiet noise that belies sound manipulator Ben Frost’s input. Gira, his baritone as languid as ever, plays the ominous narrator, wasting no time before digging into existential questions surrounding the parasitic nature of living and dying.
The next track ‘Paradise is Mine’ is even more unsettling, Gira going full-blown harbinger-of-doom mode. Like some maniacal slow dance to the end of the world, one grimly hypnotic guitar riff leads the whole song, conjuring a folk horror-y, ritualistic vibe that gets elevated as falsetto vocals join the fray and Gira really digs into the dread: “Is there really a mind? / Am I ready to die?” he asks, seemingly having reached a point of desolation.
Indeed Gira says that in the lead up to recording the album, he was haunted by the idea that it could be his last. That bleakness is very much present through the record, but paradoxically getting it on tape changed his outlook: “When I finally was able to travel, songs in hand, to Berlin to work with my friends recording this record, the feeling was akin to the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the film changes from Black and White to Color. Now I’m feeling quite optimistic. My favourite color is pink.”
Such is the importance of self-expression. And really this sums up what seems to be Swans whole ethos, that self-expression, however dark, can be purifying. And as the rest of the album (all two hours of it!) plays out, there are moments when this catharsis is palpable – stretches of beatific rapture that shine brightly in the darkness.
‘Unforming’ has a meditative tenderness that feels like a sanctuary; the impressionistic ‘Ebbing’ extends a single major chord over most of its 11 minutes; ‘Michael Is Done’ becomes, dare I say it, joyous as the sun unexpectedly bursts through the clouds half way through the track. These kind of left turns help make the record the most engaging Swans’ release since 2014’s acclaimed To Be Kind, and show that Gira, in his seventh decade, is still capable of springing surprises.
The Beggar isn’t an album for the feint hearted, and neither is a Swans gig. While their latest music is generally quieter than their previous output, the supportive gigs will no doubt be as pulverising as ever, as Gira and co journey through their vast back catalogue of sinister creations. So if you like your gigs intense, hypnotic and vaguely deafening, then Albert Hall is where you’ll want to be on 12 August.