Review: Swans – The Seer
Young God Records
Since Swans aborted in 1996, M. Gira has gone on to form the angelic and acoustic Angels Of Light as well putting out several solo efforts. The time away from Swans as well as moving into other creative directions informed the band’s reunion in 2009. What Gira is doing these days with Swans isn’t radically different but rather an organic musical growth from what he did before. Gira doesn’t hold much to the convention of living in the past, and Swans has always been about moving forward.
2009’s My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky was a mellow affair but not in the way the ambience of 1996’s Soundtracks For The Blind was nor in the acoustic manner of 1989’s Burning World. With Swans’ newest release The Seer, a bit of the melancholy humanity has been removed and replaced with grander themes and more epic noise selections. Again this is the Swans being the Swans without trying to sound like the Swans. Gira always moves ahead, good or bad, and this is another step forward for the juggernaut.
Gira has said that Swans’ moniker comes from the idea of a beautiful, majestic creature with a bad temperament. In these last two records we have seen much of the majestic and the beauty but not as much of the ugly. Not the ugly that came with 1983’s Filth or 1986’s Greed. What was once audio terror is now creepy, unsettling and subtler than before. So what track rocks the hardest? Well, if you ask that then you are clearly unfamiliar with the Swans. I believe Gira was a master classical composer in another life because that’s how he approaches music. The Seer is a chain of movements that form together into one sonic wall.
“Lunacy” is the first movement and it begins with a dissonant guitar line that repeats as droning chants build slowly from nothing into a crescendo of guitars and tribal drums. This repeats for two minutes before we crash back into the solo guitars while several vocal lines in a twisted harmony sing lyrics that make sense only to Gira. “Hide beneath the monkey’s skin, feel his love nurture him”. “Lunacy” then goes big but not in standard rock-song style, more that every element we heard before explodes together while the vocals repeat the word lunacy over and over. Helping Gira push this message across are vocalists Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker from the brilliant band Low. For me “Lunacy” ends up feeling like a slow descent into madness.
“Mother Of The World” Showcases Gira’s love for repetition. Nobody can create a tiny but complex slice of music and then beat it into the ground the way Gira can. For six minutes, no matter what else happens, the initial rhythms stay the same. The song then shifts into a beautiful and lush keyboard and acoustic guitar song. The sudden shift shouldn’t work but it does because Gira uses the repetition to build tension so thick you pray for the break. When it comes it’s not just majestic but also welcome.
After a ninety second piece titled “The Wolf”, which is Gira singing almost entirely acapella, the Swans open up their particular brand of eccentricity. The title song is thirty-two minutes long and it opens with a painfully dissonant organ or perhaps bagpipe. This is what separates the Swans’ fans from those who think its cool to wear Swans’ t-shirts. Horns come in like a Sun Ra nightmare and dissonance that would make John Cage orgasm lay just beneath them.
This unholy union of touching goes on for several minutes before the quiet comes. From there, the crashing of sonic storms of feedback, percussion, guitar hammering, electronic sheets of random noise all move together to create a tense and cathartic brew of music. Vocals, if you can call them that, don’t appear on the scene until twenty-six minutes in. For me this was the moment I saw with clarity where The Seer fell within the Swans catalog. If you love them you’ll understand what I mean, if you’re new to the Swans this tune will either induct you forever or force you to give them up entirely.
I can’t review a Swans album without touching on the guitar sound of Norman Westberg. Whether fully attacking his instrument, using it for noise or just lightly playing in the background, Westberg’s contributions to the Swans sound are above reproach. Even if he didn’t write every line, the way he creates his sound is so incredibly unique that, if you know the band, you can pick out what he’s doing in each movement. M. Gira is the brain and creative force behind Swans but he is standing on the shoulders of one of the great and unsung giants of guitar.
The Seer also forced me to look past my own opinion as it served up an incredibly powerful moment from an unlikely place. I am not a fan of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on any level. To me they underwhelming and completely derivative without even being fun. Lacking that and combined with their self-importance, I find them unlistenable. That being said, Yeah Yeah Yeahs front-woman Karen O’s guest appearance on the melancholy “Song For A Warrior” is breathtaking. Her voice is so beautiful, so transcendent of what she normally does that I ache for her to release an acoustic album.
“A Piece Of The Sky” is another of my favorites because of how Gira shifts the musical focus. Seven minutes of the song swim in bleak noise. That noise then succumbs to an uplifting and bright second movement using electronics swirling around harsh and also sweet guitar lines. Combined the two sections sound like damnation and redemption. The third movement finds Gira stopping on a dime and pushing “A Piece Of The Sky” into a twisted country song. A gorgeous one at that. Another bit of love for me surrounding this song is it features Jarboe on backing vocals (as does The Seer Returns). I have always had a thing for Jarboe and this fills my head with visions of a full Swans reunion show. The epic twenty-three minute noise blast “The Apostate” ends the album with a punch that should leave a gaping hole in your chest.
The Seer is both new ground for Swans and a culmination of their past. Nothing on the album is something you’ve heard before and yet it has echoes of everything they have ever done including Gira’s solo work. It’s all at once chaotic, beautiful, and disturbing. Bits of audio insanity are woven seamlessly with simple and touching songs that come across like modern folk. With The Seer, M. Gira and Swans hold our head to an artistic kaleidoscope of their creation that enables us to see the world in particles of art, love, darkness and light. The only question now is where will Swans take us next?