(Note: Not a single track on this album is under tumblr’s ridiculous 10MB limit, so I guess we’ll just have to do with links to youtube)
Swans are a post-punk, experimental art rock group originating from New York City. Fronted by mad scientist with a specialty in daemonic musicology, Michael Gira, Swans were first active from 1982-1997, and just recently reformed in 2010. Since then they’ve released two very well received studio albums, and a double-live album. Not Here / Not Now continues a precedent set by We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head whereby the band releases live material in order to fund their elaborate studio projects. The cash from their last live release went towards The Seer, a massive studio undertaking that in many ways brought them back into the attention of the music press.
I think I’d have more of an issue with Swans’ particular business practices if it weren’t for the fact that these really aren’t your typical live albums. Of the songs on Not Here / Not Now barely any have seen previous releases, and only one, “The Seer”, comes off the album they are purportedly promoting. And even then the song sounds completely different from its studio counterpart. The repetitive song cycles and aimless vocals that have always been hallmarks of the band are well suited to the arena of live experimentation, and there’s something kind of thrilling about the idea that a band would formulate its new material in front of its expected audience. It’s an incredibly modern idea, as if they had set up a live feed in the recording booths, like a more free form version of Radiohead’s Live from the Basement videos. And the reckless, almost merciless beauty that Swans continuously bring to bear lends this album a genuine sense of excitement that so many live recordings lack. These aren’t greatest hits that the band have over-digested by way of endless touring to the point where any power they once had has become placid or tame. “Just A Little Boy” blisters out of its pounding guitar riffs in bursts of feedback and exotic instrumentation, and “She Loves Us!” frequently fuzzes into the kind of wall of sound that’d make Phil Spector proud.
Still, you get the sense that the recording doesn’t quite capture the size of the band. It’s easy to intuit the kind of bracing impact that the group can bring to a live show, but the listener doesn’t necessary feel that sitting at home with the record on. The drunken swing of “Coward” or the oddball bass riff that hefts its weight around “Oxygen”, do a lot to suggest the dark eminence that’d rattle the floorboards of any venue, and at very high volumes you can get that sensation shuffling through your skeleton. But there’s definitely a disconnect. It’s rare that an album makes you hunger for the live experience quite like this one, and the fact that it can’t quite provide an equal substitute makes it feel a bit hollow. Overall this record will certainly appeal to the already initiated, but would serve as a puzzling entryway for anyone not already happily drinking Swans’ dark purple brand of Kool-Aid. The group is expertly catering to its niche audience and I for one certainly hope they continue to find ways to maintain the independent spirit that has been the propulsive force behind all of their work.