Michael Gira

support Vanity Productions
author LL date 14/02/18 venue Bremen Teater, Copenhagen, DEN

To me, the seminal experimental band constellation that is Swans is mostly known for their loud shows and especially frontman Michael Gira's rowdy stage presence in the group's early days in the 80's. When he performs solo, however, he does so with just himself and an acoustic guitar to create the songs, and I've been wondering all week what kind of impact that is going to have on the Swans material that he mostly sticks to even though he has also released albums in just his own name and as part of Angels of Light.

The chosen support for the evening is a somewhat elusive electronic act dubbed Vanity Productions which is, according to Bremen's website, the project of a certain Christian Stadsgaard, also of the label Posh Isolation. He builds a foreboding atmosphere with a loud half hour of live-created drone noise soundscape that sends vibrations through the whole room in slow, dynamic waves of deep and rumbling as well as high-pitched and sharp sounds. It stays in mostly dark and creepy territory most of the time but then opens up in a more optimistic open-ended stretch of sound towards the end before he finishes on an abrupt build-up of almost deafening noise. This, then, sets the stage well for the main event of the evening.

Michael Gira

You might think that a man with an acoustic guitar would have a hard time following up on the intense sonic introduction of the support act described above but even though Michael Gira is on his own tonight, his clear recognizable voice commands the room as soon as he opens his mouth. He plays to us renditions of some all new songs written for an upcoming Swans album as well as a couple of classics from around the Swans discography, opening with "Amnesia" from 1992's "Love of Life" that dives straight into his dark and somewhat sharply comical lyrical universe. The guitar is loud and although it doesn't quite make the floor rumble beneath us, the deepest notes seem to reach out and envelop us completely from the get-go. There's a good dynamic to the set where every single song has its own distinct character despite Gira's slightly flat but also hypnotic way of singing and his tendency to use the same chords repetitively for long stretches of some compositions. A little later into the set, "Jim" from 2010's "My Father Will Guide Us Up A Rope To The Sky" and the more rhythmic and intense "Oxygen" from 2014's "To Be Kind" both make great impressions, with the former seeing Gira also incorporating different ways of knocking on his guitar to make the sounds he wants.

In between songs, he is relaxed and takes his time drinking water (one time he coughs and excuses himself with the words "Sorry, I have a penis in my throat") or commenting dryly on the compositions, memorably introducing the Angels of Light track "Michael's White Hands" as a song he wrote about "Michael Jackson and Saddam Hussein in heaven having sex while pissing some substances down upon us". Most people around the seated venue chuckle at his quips and the mood in the room is one of calm, warm and curious appreciation for a songwriter that we probably all revere here on some level. The highlight of the evening is the intense newly written song introduced as "You Must Pay" that paints a stubborn picture of revenge that culminates in a longer spoken word ending that holds our attention in a steel grip. This is followed up by Gira's description of roasting someone's entrails slowly over a fire as a good way of enacting said retribution. The two other new songs, "The Hanging Man" and "The Secret Sharer" present some calmer guitar strumming that provides lighter patches in the setlist, the latter ending with a fairly melodic piece that is not so usual for Swans.

The terrible rape-themed "When Will I Return?", originally sung by Gira's wife, presents an almost soothing vocal style and along with the sweetly melodic "Annaline", coincidentally written for his wife, it breathes some air and quiet calm into the set with its slow pace. Finally, the more traditional ballad-like "God Damn The Sun" from 1989's "The Burning World" ties things up to a few subdued cheers from around the room before we end the evening in a standing ovation. As any Swans fan will know, the songs can vary a lot in length and Gira manages to entertain us tonight for an hour and twenty minutes with just ten songs. The pacing is great, though, and he doesn't rush anything, taking time to build the character of each song. The show tonight thus highlights the bare backbone of his songwriting and while the music certainly holds up as quality material in its essence, the wildness and layering of different noisy instruments that the full Swans experience entails is missing a little bit to really top off each composition. As a peak into the mind of Gira himself and the songs that he creates, however, it is definitely a solid performance.

8

Setlist:

  • 1. Amnesia (Swans song)
  • 2. Michael's White Hands (Angels of Light song)
  • 3. Jim (Swans song)
  • 4. The Secret Sharer (new song)
  • 5. Oxygen (Swans song)
  • 6. When Will I Return? (Swans song)
  • 7. You Must Pay (new song)
  • 8. Annaline
  • 9. The Hanging Man (new song)
  • 10. God Damn The Sun (Swans song)

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