Clichés and preconceived notions, though inherently simplifying, superficial, and unfairly generalising, can be rooted in some truth. They’re not necessarily so and a few certainly exist that are nothing more than fear projecting at its worst. One of those rooted in some degree of truth is the idea that as artists age, their music tends to lose urgency.
As most humans do, they conform in one way or the other. That dissatisfaction and inner turmoil that led them to a stroke of genius gives way to comfort, with whatever flame inspired them fading in the process. We all have that collection of artists whose early output is the only part of their creation staying with us over time. More often than not, genres suffering the most from this effect are the confrontational ones, those with an umbilical connection with some sort of rebellious rage and with a discomfort with the world at its root.
[Tim van Veen]
[Tim van Veen]
There are, of course, elusive cases of fires that just don’t fade, of voices which just insist on sounding relevant as the years go by. Those whose rage, whatever form it happens to take, just burns on. In the tenth edition of Le Guess Who?, four legends stood out a priori. Dinosaur Jr., Elza Soares, Patty Waters, and Swans. Four utterly distinct approaches to music that have more than stood the test of time and, judging from their Utrecht appearance, find themselves in very different form these days.
Dinosaur Jr. were never about to reinvent themselves, just taking and excelling in applying the tones and textures of heavyweight avant-rock masters Melvins to craft what essentially are indie rock songs, as contradictory as that could sound. From a technical standpoint, experience and hard work have brought them far and it shows on their performance, from the excellence of Barlow’s bass playing to their seamless inclusion of additional instruments and guests to mark the occasion. That’s about it, though. I suppose there are songs that either spoke to you years ago and still do today, or they just never will. Arguably, this places the whole affair as a merely nostalgic one, doesn’t it? I’m not sure I’ll ever find a way out of this one.
In theory, Dinosaur Jr.’s distorted guitars promised a heavier affair than Elza Soares’ samba, even the dirty one she’s exploring these days. Heaviness, however, is much more than a distorted and loud sound and, properly understood, the performance of the Brazilian legend ranks as one of the two heaviest of this year’s edition. Here, properly understood isn’t elitist bullshit about true fans or any such nonsense, just a recognition of the undeniable language barrier standing there for non-Portuguese speakers.
[Jelmer de Haas]
The language, the message, the tone and cadence of her words; if you get it, it hits you. When she says “o mundo vai acabar num poço de merda” (Portuguese for “the world will end in a pit of shit”), it’s clear as day she means fucking business. It becomes almost surreal to look at the faces around you when she repeats “a carne negra é a mais barata do mercado” and “a Elza Soares é negra, a Elza Soares é negra” (“black meat is the cheapest in the market”, and “Elza Soares is black”, respectively). Some understand the language and it shows in their face; others merely keep dancing with that unaffected expression of someone enjoying pleasant music flourished with indiscernible words. I kept wondering how many of them would vote for that Wilders asshole in the upcoming elections. How many of them were, unbeknownst to them, the target of plenty of those words.
I’ll always go back to the way she said “num poço de merda”. I’ve seen professional actors miserably fail at conveying contempt and bile to the extent she managed in those four words. Heavy, heavy and urgent as it gets, what happens when every single word in a song is felt burning inside.
[Jelmer de Haas]
When I said Elza Soares played one of the two heaviest sets of this year’s festival, a good guess as to the other culprit would either entail Swans or one of the metal acts. It wasn’t. No, the sixth ever show by Patty Waters takes that crown. Thus characterizing a concert starting with Burton Greene‘s “Burkina Faso Swing” piece might sound contradictory, though anyone that has heard the ESP portion of Waters’ discography knows very well how disturbing and impactful her voice can be.
The urgency here is a strange one, it certainly isn’t some youthful flame or an unyielding need to pass a message. Though one can connect it to the lack of live apparitions since those two ESP recordings in the 60’s, it’s not like that was a choice, just life happening in the unglamorous way it so often does. It feels as if she just never thought something like that Grote Zaal show would ever happen, an unexpected twist in a full life and a sense of occasion that is rarely experienced by either audience or musicians.
The vocal performance more than lived up to the aforementioned occasion. Haunting and graceful, it carries in itself the bare-boned genesis of the sort of magic usually performed by Diamanda Galás. “Love, love, love, love”, she repeats it on and on. At first, it’s comforting, as it often is, as it ought to be. On and on, until it ceases to enchant and something rather muddy blocks out the metaphorical sun. “Love”. On and on and on it goes until it is just an unsettling monstrosity. As it often does. Patty Waters gets it and needs only one word, one word to bring you up high and one word to mercilessly bring you crashing down. Hey, it’s not like she didn’t do just that about fifty years ago with the word “black”.
[Tim van Veen]
Then, on the final day of the festival, Swans played Ronda. At some point in that show, I was somewhere on the back of the room, level with Michael Gira. This felt wrong. Maybe that first experience with them live at the 013 is to blame. After looking up to him as they played “Sex God Sex” and feeling absolutely dwarfed by his presence, it’s hard to go and be level with the man. The thing is, I’d done it before and it didn’t have this effect, something else was to blame. That something else is their already announced end. As the current incarnation slowly but inevitably fades away, it becomes clear that Gira made the right call once again. It’s not that either “The Glowing Man” or this performance weren’t great, they were, just that they don’t quite carry the same punch their music did between the rebirth in 2010 and “To Be Kind”.
[Jelmer de Haas]
Don’t get me wrong, a fading-away Swans show is at a higher level of intensity than most, the intricate slow building of their characteristic wall of sound overseen and coordinated by Gira is still a thing of beauty. The issue arises not because of external comparisons but internal ones. At the end, it just becomes clear that the decision to bring this incarnation to an end is the right one. As with all things Swans, it won’t go out in some kind of half-assed attempt of a glorious bang, but with the same slowly crafted excellence that drove them to the top of the mountain. This level of self-awareness and the unpretentious nature of the downfall makes Michael Gira‘s artistic future even more intriguing.