September 25, 2014
The Rock File recently relocated its headquarters from New York City to Brussels, Belgium, from the New World to the Old World. And yes, we’ve heard “Why the hell did you move to Brussels from New York?” more than a few times since arriving, but there’s plenty of great music this side of the pond and we’re not here to complain. So here we are and here we go…
Swans haven’t got it easy.
Their self-professed mission is nothing short of total transcendence, complete ecstasy—for the audience, for the band, and for anyone who happens to give a shit about truly transformative art in 2014.
So when I heard Swans would be bringing their New York Noise to the Kingdom of Belgium, I realized that my transition to the European terroir would be best served by an audio assault by one of the most vital and intense bands currently exploring the outer regions of the audio big bang paradigm, so to speak.
I’m traveling alone tonight, without my trusty mates from back home, and as it’s my first concert experience in my new adopted city, I’m eager to get lost in the blind alleys of Brussels and stumble upon new mysteries, new sagas. So a stroll through the ancient streets in and around the Grand Place is in order, and it’s packed with seekers of all kinds, people flowing in and out of time and rhythm of this damp European night. I trip into an old Belgian beer hall, tucked away in a tiny trench of an alley, and it’s cozy and welcoming to this humble American. The beer list is massive and I’m immediately overwhelmed. I notice a lovely leather-bound booklet, which of course is a proper beer menu, pages upon pages of Belgian brews, most of which I’ve never heard of. Noticing my bemusement and intense interest, the bartender offers help, in a heavy Eastern European accent—“this beer is monk molotov cocktail, yes?”—and pours me something into a pear-shaped glass that’s seemingly nameless, it’s just a spigot from a tap.
Let’s just say pre-show mystery beer number one rocked my provincial American mind like Excalibur to the stone and left me wanting more, but I had to keep exploring, so I made my way to a close quarters rathskeller, all burnt orange and stained glass allegory. I’m thinking something by the Trappist order is indeed in order once again—with all the gothic alchemy that comes along with beer made by monks, following centuries-old formulas and processes and the Strict Observance and all, but more importantly because the largest amount of authentic Trappist breweries can be found right here in Belgium—so I think I’ll have a Rochefort 10, alc/vol 11.3%.
And it’s every bit as lovely as it looks.
I (somehow) make my way to Ancienne Belgique, and after getting situated and scoring a large-sized Jupiler for the show, I head in and find myself front and center, ready for my first live concert experience in Europe. Let the mayhem begin…
Percussionist Thor is first to the stage. He’s definitely grown more body hair since the last show I attended. He conjures the gong for what feels like eternity and it’s a barrage of metallic fury. The rest of the band emerge and begin to create a sort of kinetic noise sculpture, finding a groove in a long simmering, icey fjord soundscape. Stretches of sound contort into a pounding, relentless new composition, “Frankie M.”
…the weed is simply everywhere, it surrounds me, and maybe that’s to be expected, because doesn’t Belgium share a border with weed-loving Holland?
“A Little God in My Hands” is terrifying in its intensity, and it’s also suspiciously funky. Christoph Hahn is physically attacking his lap steel and I’m thinking I may need to back away from the stage, but I move closer, take out my earplugs, and let it all in. The extremes—emotional, musical—are being pummeled and there’s seemingly no end to how far Swans are willing to go for the ecstatic mission.
…I drop my empty plastic beer cup on the floor, as is standard operating procedure in the New York concert going rock scene, but here in Brussels I guess that’s just not what you do, as I get some cold stares, so I pick up the cup and hold it for the rest of the show. Sorry girls/guys. And this gets me thinking, on the tram ride home, that maybe its time to revisit that tradition/bad habit of ditching your plastic beer cup on the floor.
“The Apostate” is stunning and untouchable—Michael Gira’s body is speaking in twisted tongues, and Swans are obliterating the moment.
…it’s a good thing I brought my ear plugs all the way from New York because, god damn, the planet is exploding. In fact, some people are holding their ears, even though they’ve got plugs, because it’s that fucking loud.
The finale of “Bring the Sun/Black Hole Man” turns into an epic, Velvet Underground gets trampled in a late night drunken brawl outside Penn Station rave-up, which gets the audience dancing and slamming. It’s surreal, and beautiful, and a fitting end to a brutal but sublime night of live music.
…it dawns on me that noone, and I mean not one person in the whole fucking hall, is using their phone. It’s actually shocking—after years of having to do battle with the smartphone generation—that there’s absolutely no gadget distraction. I may have missed the sign on the way in, or maybe it’s the polite Belgian vibe that I’ve been hearing about, but it’s a major revelation, and a welcome one at that. I do my best to snap a few choice, unobtrusive pics.
Swans live is a singular experience—there’s nothing remotely like them this side of the mapped universe. I’ll continue to see Swans as much as humanly possible, as long as the mission is still critical and the soul journey is available to anyone who wants to take out the earplugs.
A Little God In My Hands
Just a Little Boy
Bring the Sun / Black Hole Man