Since Swans' reforming in 2010, Michael Gira and his band have peppered strung-out cosmic No Wave with a weird, off-kilter and abrasive blues that really underscores the band's knack for the unusual, for versatility, for the unique. It translates live. Swans are one of those rare bands that can genuinely be called unmissable.
A hush swept across the packed-out Camden Roundhouse as soon as a murmuring drone began, slowly escalating into the unrelenting, steely rhythm of unreleased opener "Frankie M". It set the tone for the rest of the performance: loud, hypnotic, utterly captivating.
Next was "A Little God in My Hands" from 2014's To Be Kind. The seamless change of pace from noisey drawl into the stop-start grind of that punchy bassline demonstrated the band's comfortable flexibility - reminiscent of the diversity of their catalogue in general. Then there was the sustained wailing and indistinguishable chanting of "Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett)". There were the slow, intensifying burn of the unreleased "I Forget"". Bring the Sun / Black Hole Man" closed the set, a segue into a No Wave and krautrock-y saga. Michael Gira held a confident command over the room throughout, breaking only to politely address and thank the audience. During the two-hour performance of only seven songs he would snake his limbs and lurch about the stage, leaning back and forth, as if channeling the noise from and around him, subliminally directing the crowd through him. These seven songs were over in what felt like moments. The audience was kept in rapture. There was no encore.
The set was entirely 'new' Swans, but it felt like a journey through and demonstration of the band's mammoth abilities. From the claustrophobic smog of Gira's quieter, almost-neofolk singing through to the early, uncompromising martial noise, the full range was covered - sometimes in a single song.
The only possible complaint - and it barely registers as one at all - is that in being reminded of the breadth of Swans' discography there's a frustration that there wouldn't be enough time to hear it all in one sitting. Each of Swans' releases has a different flavour to it, and the output of reformed Swans doesn't differ there - so it's far from any kind of disappointment that the band delivered a different kind of heavyness with just as much of a mesmerising effect.
A special mention must be given to the sound crew. The technicalities of successfully staging any show are complex enough, but even more so for a band as consistently loud as Swans. Each note in the noise was as clear as you'd want it to be. Even when they were all at once.
At the end, Gira politely thanked the audience and encouraged the room to give a hand to each member of the band. Swans left the stage and people piled out into the street, left with a collective, persistent ringing in the ear for at least a day or two. For me, that white-noise hum served as a welcome reminder that Swans' reformation in 2010 was a blessing to fans too young to catch them the first time round. It was a token that whispered: Swans are unmissable. See Swans as often as you can.