Available on: Young God LP
Just two years ago, we were applauding Michael Gira and Swans for returning from a twelve-year slumber with actual music, rather than the shaken begging tin of so many other reformed bands, suckling at the teat of festivals and blockbuster movie soundtracks like the once great Soundgarden, Pixies and Faith No More. While the underground music world reeled at the magnificence of not just a return, but the quality of the music on My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, while bowing and scraping in the general direction of the intimidating frontman, to Gira it was merely natural progression. Just as Swans itself had progressed from early ’80s sadist noise rock, through unsettling early 1990s indie, ending with sprawling drones, beats and most other elements of the modern rock lexicon, so too did Gira switch effortlessly from Swans to Angels of Light in the late 1990s. Deciding that latter side of his musical self had run its course, Gira wanted the noise back. The decision for Swans to return was merely right: that was his louder artistic side, after all.
So, while we were all marvelling at the brilliance of the return; how it was at once like Swans had never been away and yet utterly different to any previous record bearing the band’s name; while we were dizzy and grateful, and taking it all in… Gira was readying The Seer. And as great as the last album was, as deserving of the awe, it seems like we should have put some superlatives aside for this one.
There is no comparison, no contest, with current rock music. There’s plenty of qualitatively amazing stuff out there, from Black Breath and Propagandhi to sunnO)) and Shining. But aesthetically, stylistically, Gira is pretty much out on his own. There is no Cave, Waits nor Lanegan in this universe; maybe only the seldom-glimpsed Scott Walker. This is a place of no time. The Seer’s title track is over half an hour long, and neither is that anomalous nor is this one of those two towering track albums you sometimes get. Aesthetically, The Seer is closer to recent Lars Von Trier than it is any other current rock album. It has that sense of taking you into its own zone, its own reality, that you get while watching Melancholia or Antichrist. That sense of utter aesthetic beauty, honed from a relativism gained by wallowing in the muck and ugliness, that exists to an unsettling degree. You know with both Von Trier and Gira that the artifice is not all, that beauty is not necessarily truth. But you’ll gladly accept it, because the truth will very likely hurt.
Jarboe makes her return to a Swans album for the first time since 1996. However, as Gira established when Tom Lea interviewed him, it’s not really a big deal. It’s not an epochal meeting of the yin and the yang; she’s there because she could fulfil a role on the record, much like anyone else on there. This isn’t High School Musical. Tellingly, the sole lead female vocal on the album goes to Karen O, of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, on ‘Song for a Warrior’. Why ‘tellingly’? Because Gira uses people as tools; the art is what matters, not the petty details of who is making which sound. That the sounds are being made, and put in their place by Gira, are key. So Jarboe becomes texture, effect, in ‘A Piece of the Sky’, while the purity of O’s voice is focused on during her performance, as it is that which provides the most effective juxtaposition in duet with Gira’s own timbre near the climax of the piece. I get the feeling that ‘Song for a Warrior’ will be a go-to song for recommendation of the album. It’s of a ‘normal song’ length and construction, for a start, and the vocals are very palatable, not to mention performed by a musical quasi-celebrity.
Other tracks on this monster of an album are not quite so sweet, or easily processed. The title track could very well have its own disc, were it not for the fact it’s followed by ‘The Seer Returns’, but discs don’t really matter at this point. The album is on two CDs, but how many to you will listen to those? The Seer is not defined by the physical media, like past Swans record Soundtracks for the Blind was with its ‘Silver’ and ‘Gold’ discs. Its title track is merely act four of a feature length, two hour, album.
‘The Seer’ opens with a fantastic discord, and builds, bewilderingly, into a mantra of ‘I see it all, I see it all…’, and thunders with the post-Joy Division, almost drumroll beat that they’ve had since at least 1991. It comes to a conclusion at around the 13-minute mark, crashing and clattering and decaying. And crashing. And clattering. And decaying. And it has so much momentum that this grinding to a very delayed halt goes on for another 15 minutes. Then, at 28 minutes, it snakes back into life, sinister and oddly seductive, breathing ‘I love you too much’ over undulating rhythms reminiscent of Mark Lanegan’s period working with Mike Johnson in the late 1990s. And it locks into this zone for the remaining four minutes. Conversely, ‘The Seer Returns’ is a relative exercise in brevity, its six minutes taken up with a confident, swaggering rhythm: ‘I know I’ll never die’, Gira proclaims. He might be correct. As you’d imagine, ‘93 Ave. B Blues’ is not traditional, early Stones or Zep, foolishness. It’s five minutes of zombie drones feasting on harmonica, before subsiding in monumental kitchen sink blastbeats and decay.
Continuing this series of short pop songs is the sub-three-minute ‘The Daughter Brings the Water’, surely as sinister as a simple folky song can be, and one which bizarrely recalls my childhood, trying to learn Farsi… ‘mama ob dod: mother gave water’. Like ‘Reeling the Liars In’ on Swans’ last album, it’s a simple sonic vignette that both adds dynamic texture to the album, but also unsettles in its small, perfectly formed way. Then comes the really quite beautiful ‘Song for a Warrior’, before the chimes, tribal drumming and breathtaking crescendo of ‘Avatar’ signal a return to the longer songs. Indeed, the titles themselves give away the ambition. ‘Mother of the World’ and ‘The Apostate’ are not your run of the mill song names. The songs have to be beasts to back them up.
It is not that the scale of the album in itself is something special; there were long songs before these, and there will undoubtedly be more to come. What’s really arresting is the fact that each sequence is exquisitely crafted, and then presented as part of a larger whole. The word ‘epic’ gets tossed around like Spike Dudley in a Royal Rumble nowadays, synonymous with anything vaguely good. But this really is epic. Yes, there are drones (and fire samples – contributed by Ben Frost), for example on ‘A Piece of the Sky’, as Jarboe’s wordless harmonies get assimilated into the fabric of the sound. But then you’re presented with a mass of guitar strings, punctuating the peace like the storm of arrows in Throne of Blood, and then another five minutes of a gorgeous jangly chord progression… well, as jangly as Swans ever get. And that subsides into a thick, floaty bassline and delicate chiming guitars. The song being 22 minutes doesn’t become an issue, unless you’re dying for the next hook. If you just listen to what’s happening, the two hours feel like a mix between nothing and forever. You can go for quarter of an hour at a time without Gira singing, without even noticing, because the passage of time becomes folded in on itself. It’s music as place. It’s a series of utterly compelling sonic installations that, when combined, work perfectly as massive songs.
Whether it’s a brief traditional song, or a quiet-loud lightning strike, or dark indie, or ambient/drone, Gira excels. And never do you feel like he’s just trying different things just to prove he can, because it never feels contrived beyond just trying to make the best music possible. Gira himself says ‘The Seer took 30 years to make. It’s the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.’ And that sounds fair enough. Given its scale, and a statement like that, you wonder if that’s it for Swans; whether they are once more dead. Then again, he also says ‘it’s one frame in a reel’, which makes you wonder what the hell could be next. It’s largely irrelevant and foolish to wonder, though. The Seer is clearly brilliant, and may even be Swans’ finest album yet, three decades in. It’ll take long enough to soak it all in, before even contemplating what’s in the next frame.