When I saw that this gig was announced, I could hardly believe my eyes.
The line-up seemed reminiscent of the legendary All Tomorrows Parties shows of old; top to bottom innovation and intrigue from incredible underground bands. Sadly I was kept from seeing some of the earlier bands due to other commitments (I have to fund my faberge egg addiction somehow).
This meant I heartbreakingly missed out on what I’m told was an incredible This is Not This Heat set, the band named as such due to one of the members of This Heat dying and the remaining members deciding to not tour under the original name out of respect. The buzz about their show was palpable, with one concert goer recounting a stunning, visceral version of Health and Efficiency closing the set with wide eyed enthusiasm.
Upon arrival I ventured straight to the main stage to catch the second half of Royal Trux‘s set. To complain about Royal Trux being disjointed or messy would be to miss the point, especially within the sonic chaos of their records, yet tonight they didn’t seem to hook it up to any spectacular proportion.
The drummer and lead guitarist’s interplay was always interesting and occasionally spectacular, particularly during their closing track’s e-bow feedback blowout over a wonderfully infectious groove, but frontwoman Jennifer Herrema‘s disaffected drawl and spaced out stage manner didn’t quite translate to the huge Victoria Warehouse stage, and was particularly hamstrung by the sound being unflattering, her vocals being lost in cavernous reverb. As they closed out their set I sadly consigned them in my brain to the category marked “Good on Record“.
Wandering over to the second stage I caught the last ten minutes or so of Little Annie‘s set. A storied polymath with an incredible musical history, Little Annie (AKA Annie Anxiety) has ties to Crass, Lee Scratch Perry, Swans and a host of other disparate musical movements. Today found her, surprisingly, performing accompanied by a lone pianist and producing rather mercurial, cabaret tinged pieces.
She had a charming presence, a beautifully weathered voice and wonderful lyrics, but sadly was difficult to appreciate in the warehouse setting, particularly with the extremely quiet volume of her show, coupled with poor visibility and that the second stage was positioned right next to the men’s toilets. Right at the front, I imagine I’d have been enraptured, but the show felt more like it should have been in a tea shop with everybody sat down listening intently.
Next there was a 30 minute gap with no music, which felt like somewhat of an organisational blunder from the promoters as both Sex Swing and The Fall were due to start at the same time.
I opted to forgo the start of The Fall‘s hour long set, instead getting myself front and centre for Sex Swing, an underground supergroup who by rights shouldn’t even exist. Featuring members of Dethscalator, Mugstar, Part Chimp, Bonnacons of Doom, Earth and Dead Neanderthals, they have a veritable pedigree of talent for making destructive noise. Today a man down with Part Chimp‘s Tim Cedar away on Part Chimp duty, Sex Swing built a foreboding atmosphere reminiscent of Pink Floyd‘s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, melded with Funhouse era Stooges sax squalls, Neu! style repetition, and lumbering doom metal.
They played three tracks: the leaden Grace Jones, an incredibly heavy new song, and a thunderous rendition of their debut’s lead “single”, Night Time Worker. There’s a feeling of chaos throughout, yet the band are fully in control and ever building to the moment they crash through their own tension to cave your head in, a feat they repeat time after time, creating a brutally euphoric experience.
After seeing my first truly great show of the event, I wandered back through to the main room to catch the final act of The Fall‘s show, and by contrast was treated to what was easily the worst set I bore witness to. For a band as innovative and storied as The Fall, it really is a shame for them to fall so far (I am ashamed of that pun).
Mark E. Smith‘s notorious revolving door of musicians over the band’s lifespan finds them in a curious position tonight. The band remained static while their leader sneered and stumbled around the stage, his mumbling and shouting delivery often seeming of no consequence as to what was being played, something which was again hurt by the cavernous sound on the vocals in the huge warehouse.
Any and all poetry was lost to the reverb, leaving only the sound and the spectacle; the band played fairly tightly, although it seemed rather sterile compared to the stunning invention Sex Swing had brought moments before. Smith‘s capabilities as a frontman now seem to stem entirely from his reputation, for at face value, he was incoherent, unengaging and unentertaining. Sigh.
Suuns….awesome last night at Transformer, Victoria Warehouse, Manchester. pic.twitter.com/3XZJZxYVcz
— Caroline Bradley (@calsbradley) May 29, 2017
Back at the small stage, headliners Suuns were taking flight, sounding like a modern update on the Silver Apples. Infectious danceable grooves mingled with kraut and psych sensibilities and wonderfully creative minimal playing to create a palpably electric atmosphere. Sections of the crowd were getting down as if it were a DJ set rather than an experimental rock band. Each track segued into the next, creating an incredibly cohesive flow that cast its spell with stunning effectiveness. Often experimental music is difficult, but Suuns are practically a unicorn: an experimental outfit that is pure unabashed fun. With a few songs to go I abandoned their set to take my place down the front for the headliners, experimental rock titans Swans.
This would be Swans final tour with their current lineup before they morph into something new. This would be the third time I’ve seen them. The first, which took place in the Manchester Academy on their To Be Kind tour, still stands as the best show I’ve ever seen in my life (Boredoms at the Barbican a close second, D’Angelo at the Manchester Apollo comes in third), a moment when I found out that you could be put into a truly transcendent state by music, and I mean that without pretense.
I stumbled out of that show laughing and continued to laugh in disbelief for another half hour afterwards, unable to reconcile that I’d been bludgeoned into a state of euphoria with that I was completely sober, or that I felt like I’d run a marathon whilst standing still.
This show rivalled that experience.
The opening of a Swans show always makes me think of that analogy where you can’t drop a frog into boiling water, but if you put the frog in cold water and heat it up, the frog won’t jump out. The audience is the frog, and the sheer mountain of sound Swans create is the water. Always building from a quiet drone to start, they lull the audience in, adding detail at a glacial pace until you’re fully enveloped in a wall of sound and you don’t quite know how you arrived there.
— Martin Lavelle (@MartinJLavelle) May 30, 2017
I checked my watch after what felt like the prelude and discovered that I’d been watching them for 20 minutes. My sense of time thoroughly shattered, the band proceeded to close out what may have been a rendition of Frankie M (possibly – their structures vary so much and so often compared to their studio tracks), culminating in a two chord riff that shook my internal organs loose. The first track closed after 36 minutes.
They followed with a rather faithful rendition of fan favourite Screen Shot, the only track in the set from an older release than their last. Met with palpable excitement, the track’s sinister swagger was a welcome release after the uneasy tension of the opener. Remarkably, a good portion of the crowd start to outright dance, with others locked into a trance like motion where they stood. The more familiar material really delighted as it presented a chance to appreciate how incredible the band’s live sound is, something that had me worried since both Royal Trux and The Fall suffered. Perhaps Swans travel with their own engineer, versed in dealing with their insane array and unprecedented volume.
The set then proceeded with three more 20 plus minute epics. Cloud of Unknowing took on a heft that is simply not replicable on record, as Phil Puleo‘s drums in the lurching early part kicked in with a groove that recalled Led Zeppelin‘s When The Levee Breaks, but every member of the band is John Bonham, the levee has burst and we’re all drowning.
By this point in the show it’s hard to recall a good amount of detail. My eyes were closed, perhaps to stop my brain from seeping out from behind them. The back end of Cloud laid down an urgent krautrock tinged groove that set up the closer fantastically, easing the energy ever upwards.
Set closer The Glowing Man (formerly known as Black Hole Man) provided the highest peak of the show. After more ebbing and flowing drones and sections of intense noise, the Neu! style groove crunches in without warning, with an off the beat bass riff that feels as muscular as an ox, each upstroke at the end of the bar a gut punch.
Christoph Hahn and Norman Westberg expertly craft swirls of brutally nauseating psychedelia as the rhythm section pounds forward. The crowd now all dancing, Michael Gira steps up to the microphone, exchanging mantric lines with swirls of guitar noise, conducting with his hands and snapping them down each time he goes to sing again, cutting the savage clouds of noise from the air, then summoning them once again. It’s incredible. They quicken the exchange and somehow generate more and more energy in a feat that defies all expectation before pulling the rug from under the seemingly infinite groove with an apocalyptic crunch. The final drone is so powerful I can’t make my mind up as to whether I feel sick, and as it cuts down to silence it takes me a full 20 seconds standing dumbstruck to remember to applaud.
The band take their bows and I stumble back to my car where I sit for 15 minutes before turning the key because I don’t feel safe to drive.
- Image: Vicky Pea